Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In development for years from a director that is shrouded in controversy and frustration, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stumbled out from behind the curtain during the holiday season. Sadly, it just could not compete with the box-office draw of a yellow-lab puppy (if that's in fact the correct breed...) and was welcomed with lukewarm reception. Regardless, Benny Buttons managed to eke its way into my list of top films of the year on principle alone. Of everything I've seen in 2008 only this film and two others (Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed and Milk, review coming soon) evoked a purely visceral emotional response from me.

Using more of the lengthy narrative structure used in his 2006 sleeper hit Zodiac (a frustratingly brilliant film, I might add) Fincher captures the tragic futility and inherent beauty of the human lifespan, skewed from the eyes of a man who experiences it all backwards, and in a lot of ways more forward than anyone ever has. Drawing comparisons from screenwriter Eric Roth's previous work on Forrest Gump, which told the extraordinary story of a simple man, Button tells a similarly parallel tale of an extraordinary man who led a, more or less, simple life. The events in his life aren't groundbreaking moments in American history, but significant moments that make a person who they are, and Fincher captures it with heartbreakingly detailed precision. Drawing the parallels between childhood and old age, the similarities in mentality and the tragic contrast in seeing an old man with the curiousity and wonderment of a 6 year old and the sorrowful depiction of a small child grappling with all the fading memories that once made up who he once was.

A plethora of characters weave their way through Button's life. Benjamin's adoptive black mother, Queenie and her lover (though never husband) Tizzy. The swarthy tattooed sailor Captain Mike (executed brilliantly by Jared Harris, seen on recent episodes of FOX's sci-fi drama Fringe and 2002's Igby Goes Down) and the first person to take hold of Benjamin's heart, Elizabeth Abbott (his Burn After Reading co-star Tilda Swinton) to name a few.

Most notably in the film is Brad Pitt's transformation from a crippled and broken "old" man to the Pitt we've seen in such early 90's films as Thelma and Louise and Cool World (avoid the latter, for your own sake.) The early portion of the film achieving it's effects through the use of body actors and superimposing Pitt's face onto it (there may have been some CG tweaking to make him look extra geriatric.) After the CG scenes had run their course, the makeup for his 70's to late 30's was very well done. However, less talked about is the aging makeup and effects used on Cate Blanchett, who plays Button's lifelong love. Cast as Dakota Fanning's younger sister Elle in the first act, my only major complaint came from the fact that Blanchett's voice was used to overdub Elle's lines. Probably only executed to maintain some sort of familiarity with her later self, it came off as more distracting than anything else.

It's hard to tell what sort of moral Fincher (or adapted author F. Scott Fitzgerald) is trying to convey with this film. It can be taken a series of different ways. Most prominent are these two (a friend of mine read this somewhere, told me and I'm going to rehash it here.) This is a portrait of how beautiful life is when viewed from a different angle, or it is a testament to how tragic life can be, no matter which direction you live it.