Kevin's Review: David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - A Timely Tale of Life
by Kevin Powers
December 24, 2008
Just in time for the holidays and the New Year comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a delicate, thought-provoking film that is surely going to evoke feelings of thanks and hope. It's not in my nature to be particularly tender, but director David Fincher's adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story will have even the most cynical person sit in optimistic wonderment. Much of the film's intrigue is found in the beautiful dichotomies it richly presents - life can be exceeding short or long, love can be numerous and singular, and the mind and body aren't always the same age. Button is classic storytelling in the finest sense, sprawling in epic scale, complex in feeling, and overflowing in meaning.
At the end of WWI, a shriveled, crippled infant is born to a mother that died in labor and a well-to-do father who owns a button factory in New Orleans. Overcome, the father abandons the child at an old folks' home, at which point a caring housemaid name Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) takes him in as her own. The child, Benjamin (Brad Pitt), is born with a catalog of infirmities one usually only exhibits at the end of their life, not at the beginning. To no explanation, Benjamin continues to grow, loosing his ailments and gaining energy with each passing year. Eventually, his curiosity and vigor gets the best of him, and he leaves Queenie and his aged friends to see the world by way of a tugboat and its surly captain (Jared Harris).
Fincher's rendering of Benjamin's early (or late) life is nothing short of remarkable. The physical presentation will leave you stunned, as you can clearly discern Pitt's features and expressions through the wrinkles and glasses, but it's certainly not the actor's body. As Benjamin's mind grows, too, Fincher explores what someone with an 80-year-old body and a 10-year-old mind might get into. And that's part of makes Button so accessible: the humor. The film's comedy comes across deftly authentic and never artificial.
Underpinning Button is Benjamin's love for Daisy (Cate Blanchett). They meet while Benjamin is in Queenie's care, a friendship which proves complicated considering the tangible difference in age. Throughout their respective lives, the two manage to stay in each others' thoughts and eventually meet at a time where both are nearly the same age. The push and pull, distance and closeness between Benjamin and Daisy is a weathered and touching relationship that comes appropriately full-circle, with, thankfully, little triteness of cliché. Even I can appreciate when the two "meet in the middle."
While I would positively consider Button a classic, I can't say that all of its elements are wholly original. Screenwriter Eric Roth also wrote for Forrest Gump, influences from which you'll readily feel in the film. Equally familiar is the framing device for the story. We learn of Benjamin's life by way of an old, hospitalized Daisy and her daughter, who is reading to her from Benjamin's diary. This smells a bit like Titanic, if you ask me. And you might even detect a scent of Interview with the Vampire by way of Pitt narrating his life, the same as he did in Anne Rice's story. These recognizable characteristics don't mitigate Button in any material sense, they just aren't on the level of originality as Fincher's visuals.
Pitt and Blanchett, too, aren't particularly remarkable in their performances. For a film that left me so inspired and awed, I was surprised to realize that none of the actors really stood out, save for Tilda Swinton as Benjamin's first great love. In any other movie a lackluster lead might prove fatal. But for Fincher's film, the story and emotional spectrum of the film is enough to buoy Button into the halls of classic storytelling. Like life, the film isn't perfect. But as the sum is usually greater than its parts, and a life should be judged on its entirety, Fincher's Button is a moving experience not to be missed. Especially at this time of year.