Note: I wrote this review nearly two months (12/30/08) after I viewed the film, and one day before the Oscars. It did not win Best Picture.
You would not expect a film centered around one's mortality and the unforgiving gravitational pull of time to be a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe you would if you wrapped your wolf in sheep's clothing, which is what the geniuses behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have done. Saturate the market with posters of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's angelic visages (I swear to God, their faces looked like they actually glowed when I looked at them). Drum up a trailer that emphasizes the story's fantastical narrative as well as the broad gesticulations of its love story. Cue presses insatiable desire to oversell another collaboration between Pitt and director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club). Release the film on Christmas Day at the height of the holiday season when department stores and marketing departments sell you on synthetic cheer and hollow reasons to believe because 'tis the season. Watch as the public laps it up.
Maybe I'm just a cynic. But I'm also a part of the masses, and I have to say The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resonated in an emotional manner with me that I had not expected. Maybe I wasn't sold on the hyperbole, so I went into the film with lowered expectations. Maybe I adopted a cautionary, defensive stance, so I would not believe in the greatness of the film based solely on the media's hype machine. Whatever the reason, I was surprised to find myself drawn in to the film's expansive storyline and, by the end of the film, I found myself genuinely moved by the tale that had been told.
Many people know the basic skeletal structure of the story. A boy, Benjamin Button (Pitt), is born at the end of the first World War in New Orleans, but he's born with all of the qualities/infirmities of the old: arthritis, muscle deterioration, hard-of-hearing, etc. He looks and acts like a man in his eighties even though he's a new-born infant. The film traces his life story as he ages in reverse, while everyone around him ages in the traditional manner. One of those individuals is Daisy (Blanchett), whom Button meets when she's a young girl; she comes to visit her grandmother in the old folks home where Benjamin is being raised by Queenie (Tarij P. Henson), his adoptive mother (his real mother died during childbirth, and his father abandoned him out of disgust). Over the next several decades, they develop a love for one another as they drift in and out of each other's lives. For a brief while, they meet in the middle when their age and physical/emotional maturity coalesce to form the union that time has always denied them. However, their bodies continue to age in opposite directions until Daisy has grown physically old, while Benjamin's body has regressed into infancy.
The story, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), shares similarities to Gump, especially in the story-telling structure, the decades-spanning timeline, the unrequited love for a woman, and the freak-hero protagonist used to emotionally manipulate the audience. That said, Button is a superior film, and I wish it were getting more consideration for best picture. I know it racked up thirteen Oscar nominations, but it seems unlikely to win anything other than maybe some technical awards. Maybe the backlash has now set in, and people feel like it's the Goliath amongst the Davids, ye the film itself works not only as a love story, but as a bleak and authentic portrait of deterioration due to time's single-minded relentlessness. The fact the film tells a fantastical tale does not take away from the singular realism that accompanies the emotions generated due to the film's content. And this content is held together by the eponymous man at the title of the film, played by Brad Pitt in a performance equally deserving of the accolades being showered upon Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke.
Pitt has always been a terrifically agile actor; you only need to watch True Romance, Seven, Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, and other films to witness his dexterity as a performer. He seeks out adventurous, creative directors (Fincher, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers) with proven track records, and his choices reflect a willingness to not be pigeonholed into any one kind of role. If I have any complaint to give with regard to his acting, it would be this minor critique: he constantly chooses roles that de-emphasize his natural good looks. Other than the Ocean films, I feel like he believes he needs to do work that does not play on his natural handsomeness because he does not want to appear to be coasting by on his matinee idol looks. Which is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the perfect vehicle for Brad Pitt.
With the help of technology and prosthetics, Pitt plays Benjamin throughout the film's entire two hour and forty minute running time. This film lets Pitt indulge in his desire to disappear physically within a role, but it also puts his iconic facial features front and center, not for simplistic aesthetics's sake, but for a commentary on the fleetingness of one's looks. Pitt has long been admired and objectified for these looks (People's Sexiest Man of the Year . . . twice), and I think this role allowed him to focus on this impermanence. It places, front and center, the understanding that a life cannot be lived on vanity alone, that something more must be longed for, and in the case of Button/Pitt, this something manifests itself in the love of a woman and a family.
Some may ridicule certain shots/scenes such as Pitt looking like a J Crew model with his wind-blown golden boy hair, his aviator sunglasses, and his leather bomber jacket as he rides a motorcycle. But I didn't feel like it was self-adoration, only a natural progression of the film's themes. A scene like the one mentioned visually captures the perfection found in a moment, tempered by the reality that things must change, that time marches forward, that the body must fall apart and fail. But that doesn't mean we cannot enjoy what we have when we have it. You really feel in certain scenes (like when Benjamin sees his daughter born) that not only are we watching his character experience the joy of fatherhood, but we are allowed to see Pitt demonstrating his love for the same, actual experience. I remember two to three shots/scenes where I remember legitimately tearing up, and I appreciated the fact that I felt the emotion was earned because Pitt (and Blanchett) welcomes you into his world. At some point, Benjamin Button stops being a film about a man aging backwards and becomes a meta-movie about a movie star recognizing his mortality and accepting it, no matter the disappointment such a realization offers.
I do believe Fincher and Pitt missed out some opportunities to play up the black humor that can accompany any film concerning death. A friend mentioned he would have liked to have seen what Tim Burton could have done with this material, and I see what he means. Fincher downplays rather than ramps up the film's ghoulish comedy such as when old (but young) Benjamin loses his virginity in a brothel. And Benjamin, to be true to the story, should have come out the size of a full-grown man older man rather than an aged infant. But I appreciated Fincher's dedication to keeping the film rooted to the performances despite so many opportunities to let the episodic nature of the film bludgeon the emotions on display.
I'm not sure which film I wish to win for best picture: Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button. But I do know I have a rich appreciation for Fincher and Pitt's third collaboration together. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button exists in the same league as their earlier collaborative works, only now the darkness exists below the surface, underneath the gleam, but inexorably pulling us along toward our murky futures like the waters of Katrina that submerge everything at film's coda.