From the moment I first saw the trailer for "Benjamin Button", I was intrigued. I have always enjoyed David Fincher's films, but have maintained an arms distance. I haven't ever loved one of his films; every film has some missing aspect preventing me from fully embracing it, some human element. But "Benjamin Button" looked different, very different from anything he had ever done before.
And it looked like a lot could go wrong. From the moment you learn Brad Pitt will age backward in the film, you immediately think of a lot of bad make-up and a lot of white hair coloring. I know some people are put off by actors doing Southern accents, and the accents in the trailer seemed a little strange.
So, I was disappointed to read a review of the film in the San Francisco Chronicle on opening day. It wasn't kind. I was afraid my fears had been realized and one of my most highly anticipated films of the year was going to be a huge flop.
I had the opportunity to see the film a few nights later, with a friend, and I was mesmerized from the first frame to the last. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a film that weaves its spell and snares you very quickly. If you are ready for the ride, you will have an emotional journey. I did. I hope you will. In fact, I was so swept up in the journey, I saw it twice over the course of a few short days. It is that good. It is so good in fact that it is my favorite film of 2008.
That said, it is much more difficult to write about a film I love. I want to give you a picture of what makes the film stand out without revealing too much about the plot. It is a hard and difficult task because if I reveal too much, I could potentially ruin some of the magic.
Benjamin, fresh from his dead mother's womb, is dropped on the doorstep of a home for the elderly in New Orleans, by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng). The Armistice has just been announced and people are out celebrating, packing the streets of New Orleans in 1918. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the woman who looks after the elderly folks practically stumbles across the baby and soon takes him in. They are all God's creatures after all. It is clear to Queenie that Benjamin is special and the old folks in the home soon embrace him. It's easy for them because he looks so much like them; at birth, he has the body of an 80 year old. But Queenie takes him in as her child and soon, as he ages, his appearance becomes a little younger. At about twelve, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) starts to look like a sixty year old but has the body of an adolescent. One of the seniors at the home begins to receive visits from her granddaughter, Daisy. The inquisitive red-haired young girl and Benjamin become friends (Daisy sneaks Benjamin into her 'fort' made of furniture and sheets late one night) and their friendship develops with each visit. Soon, Benjamin, a now strapping fifty year old, decides to get a job and he meets Captain Mike (Benjamin Harris), who runs a steamboat up and down the Mississippi. Captain Mike takes him on and sooner than later, the steamboat crew is traveling the world, taking whatever work they can get. Benjamin promises to write Daisy and sends her postcards from Russia, where he meets a Diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton). They have an affair, but Benjamin's crew is called to war and they try to help salvage American ships. Benjamin soon returns home and Queenie is thrilled he is safe. It is about this time that Thomas Button (Flemyng) makes his presence known and he soon tells Benjamin the truth. He wants his son to inherit the family business and real estate when he dies, which will be soon. Reluctantly, Benjamin helps his dad through his last hours and decides to travel to New York, to find Daisy, to sweep her off her feet. But the 20-year-old Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a featured dancer in "Carousel", is surprised to find Benjamin at her dressing room door, unannounced. As Benjamin gets older, he appears younger, and he begins to wonder if he and Daisy will ever be right for each other.
Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (apparently, very loosely based), the screenplay by Eric Roth ("Forest Gump", "Munich", "Ali") is as much an accomplishment as any other part of the film. The film owes a lot to the primary setting, New Orleans, and Roth creates an interesting framing device for the fable-like story. An old woman is on her deathbed, her daughter at her side, trying to comfort her. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, the dying woman simply wants her daughter to read a diary she has in her possession. As she reads, the dying woman hears the story of Benjamin Button, in his words, as he recounts the tale a number of years before his death, in 1985. It is a fascinating story, but because it is told to us, making it more of a fable, we tend to believe in it more and are more willing to accept the outlandish bits of the tale.
As her daughter comforts the dying woman, she tells the younger woman about a famous clock maker named Mr. Gateau (Elias Koteas). That's Mr. Cake as the dying woman helpfully translates. The story, set a few years before the beginning of Benjamin's story, helps to set the tone for the film. Depicted in sepia, with a lot of touches to make it look like old silent film, the story doesn't have a huge connection to the rest of the film (there is a connection, but it is slim) but it helps to set up the nature of the film, how we are going to learn about things, the style of what we are gong to watch, the feel of the next two and a half hours of film time. What it does is make the more outlandish elements of Benjamin's story blend in more seamlessly. For instance, when he gets a job on the tugboat, the captain soon takes his ship abroad to do contract work and they end up in Russia, at the height of winter. Hmmmmm. Seems like there are a few potential problems with that, but because the film has such a pervasive 'tall tale' quality, we dive right in along with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton.
Fincher deserves a lot of credit for taking on such an ambitious project. From the first moment you hear about Brad Pitt aging backwards, you immediately think about make-up and whether it will be believable of not. Basically, they streamlined a new process and use Pitt, but age him with computer-generated effects. Then, they use similar computer technology to marry this footage to another body, helping Pitt appear like an extremely old man, when Benjamin is a few years old. And then on the flip side, they make Pitt appear even younger than he actually is when Benjamin is an old man. The work done on this technique is truly impressive and never fails to convince you that Benjamin is, in fact, aging backward and that Pitt is playing this same character.
As mentioned, the first part of the film is shot in darker tones, giving it a slight sepia tinge and the appearance of old silent films. As the story progresses through time, the look of the film changes in subtle ways. For Benjamin and Daisy's meeting in New York, in the mid 40s, the colors are over saturated and look like an old Technicolor film. In the 60s, some of this is lost, but the editing is faster paced to mimic the change in cinema and the world that was happening at that time. Fincher uses these techniques in a way that may seem excessively showy and theatrical, but in fact it adds to the tapestry of this tale.
Also, there is what I am sure is a distinct technique being used throughout much of the film. Frequently, a distinct light source appears in the frame, shining across. If two characters are sitting in front of a lamp, talking, the light trails behind them. If a candle sits on a table in front of two characters, the light trails across their faces. I noticed this happening frequently during the early portion of the film, when Button is a young boy imprisoned in an old man's body. This technique helps to give the sepia tones a more diffuse quality and helps the film we are watching look older. The lights also help to draw our attention to certain areas. And the lights help to draw our attentions away from any possible glitches in the CGI. I'm not saying there are any, but the film has such a beautiful look, a beautiful feel that if there were any glitches, it would be difficult to notice them.
As the film spans many decades, Fincher recreates each of these periods, bringing them to life. For instance, when Benjamin travels to New York, to surprise Daisy, he buys a ticket to the theater to watch her performance in "Carousel" before surprising her backstage. We see a few moments of this performance and everything seems recreated to the minutest detail. The film, if nothing else, is a technical feat.
But Fincher and Roth know we aren't going to sit through almost three hours of technical bravado without a human, intimate story to guide us along the journey. For that, they need to create compelling, interesting characters. And we need to care about them.
I have never been a huge fan of Brad Pitt. I've enjoyed many of his films, but he always seems just a little too 'the same' in every performance. Because he is so handsome, it is difficult to believe him in some of his performances. He won me over as Benjamin.
Remarkably, much of his performance is very quiet. As Benjamin looks old when he is first born, and is constantly reminded by Queenie that his time on Earth is limited, he is very tentative as a young boy. Confined to a wheel chair and living among senior citizens, he is never sure how long he will be around. But he takes everything in like a sponge. As he becomes older, he realizes changes are happening, his appearance changes and he becomes a little more adventurous. It takes him a while to learn, but he reads everything and asks a lot of questions. When something doesn't make sense, he cocks his head a little and moves on. He embraces every new experience and soon starts to become his own person.
Because he is aging in reverse, Benjamin is experiencing things in a very different way than most people. But many of these experiences happen to both young men and old men, in different ways, so it is amusing to see Benjamin talking about hair sprouting up in different, new places when he has the body of a fifty year old, but is in fact a teenager.
As a young man who looks old, he meets Daisy, a normal young girl, and the granddaughter of an elderly woman who lives at the house. They become friends, but are naturally at different places in their lives, even though they are approximately the same age. Each time she comes to visit, their friendship grows, much as Daisy grows into a pretty young lady or Benjamin grows into a young man. When Benjamin leaves to go to sea, he promises to write and we see the collection of postcards as Daisy's adult daughter reads them to her on her deathbed. They tell the story of Benjamin the adventurer, a man who finds his new life at sea, on a tugboat. In Russia, he meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) and has an affair. At this point, Daisy's young lady loses any romantic feelings she has for Benjamin, but is surprised when he returns home and she runs into him during a visit to the Senior Citizen's home.
Throughout the film, Pitt shows us Benjamin's adventurous attitude, his quest to always learn more and his undying love for Daisy.
Cate Blanchett is, as always, very good as Daisy. When we first see Blanchett in the role, Daisy is about twenty and has just become a dancer. It is really remarkable to see Blanchett playing a character who looks like she did about twenty years ago. Her skin is flawless and smooth as glass. She is one of the most interesting and beautiful actresses working today and she is the perfect choice for this difficult role.
As Daisy is a normal child growing up into a normal human being, she has many recognizable traits and problems. These same traits are pretty much absent in Benjamin because he is inherently more introspective. He is basically looking at life backwards and can appreciate things more. But because Daisy is more normal, she is also more typical and has problems that make her seem less likable. When Benjamin arrives to sweep her off her feet, after her performance in "Carousel", he arrives unannounced, which puts her off slightly. But he also looks to be about fifty and this seems to put her off slightly. Benjamin spots another girl's rich, older 'benefactor' and realizes this is how he looks. But because he doesn't look perfect, this moment makes Daisy seem rather vain.
Later, when she is less than perfect and Benjamin is just getting more handsome, she runs into his arms. These moments are difficult to watch because they make Daisy seem less than angelic. But they are also necessary for that same reason.
And Tilda Swinton's portrayal of Elizabeth Abbott is also interesting. Technically a small supporting role, Elizabeth is Benjamin's first real lover and this helps him realize his love for Daisy all the more. But Elizabeth, the wife of a diplomat stranded in the frosty regions of Russia, sees Benjamin as a diversion. They meet at midnight, every night, in secret, in the hotel they both live in. She always seems to look at Benjamin as if he is an apparition, ready to disappear at any moment. Because of this, she embraces their relationship more fully, enjoying every moment of their time together.
"Button" is also an incredibly moving film because we spend so much time with the characters and witness so much of their lives, we feel as though we are participants.
From beginning to end, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a fable that will wrap you up and release you only after the last frames have played on screen