February 01, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

American author Mark Twain once said that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end, wondering about how would it be to be able of spending the last years of life as a small child. Inspired by this remark, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story about a man whose life follows that interestingly reversed pattern: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". Included in Fitzgerald's collection of short stories titled "Tales of the Jazz Age" (1922), it has become one of his most popular short stories in spite of having been written just for Fitzgerald's own amusement. More than 80 years later, scriptwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord take Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" as source to once again explore the idea of a man whom is born as an old man, in a movie of the same title directed by David Fincher with actor Brad Pitt in the lead role. But while Fitzgerald's story focuses on the troubles of a man with such condition, its cinema counterpart attempts to go beyond the life of Benjamin Button.

The film begins in the year 2006 in New Orleans, with old lady Daisy Williams (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed awaiting to die as hurricane Katrina is about to hit land. Her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) is by her side, trying to make her last moments as comfortable as possible. Daisy asks Caroline to read her an old book she has with her, the memoirs of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). As Caroline begins to read, she discovers that this man's life was not normal, as Benjamin Button was born as an old man the day World War I ended. Thinking his son is a monster and blaming him for his wife's death, Benjamin's father (Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby in a retirement home, where he is adopted by one of the servants, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Living in the retirement home, Benjamin feels at home between the old people and begins to make friends, but he also discovers the most extraordinary thing about it: he is actually growing younger. Meeting a girl named Daisy Williams will be the most important event in the curious life of Benjamin Button.

Adapted to the screen by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (with a screenplay written by Roth), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" explores the extraordinary events in the life of its title character, but takes a special focus on his relationship with Daisy Williams. Love and its complications become the film's major theme, as the movie follows the two ill-fated lovers whose relationship is affected by Benjamin's strange condition. Naturally, given the extremely atypical circumstances of Benjamin Button's growth to maturity, the film also explores the subject of life, aging and maturing, with Benjamin Button's curious experience offering the chance to make some meditations on the way we live our lives, as his physical appearance allows him to experience things with a different perspective. But still, Roth prefers to take a more emotional angle and keeps the focus on the love story between Benjamin and Daisy, and so the majority of the film is dedicated to their problematic relationship. In a way, this may make for a more accessible film, but also feels a lot like "playing safe".

In other words, the screenplay is not exactly one of the film's most interesting aspects, but on the contrary, David Fincher's directing is certainly worth the praise it has received. A careful and dedicated craftsman, Fincher makes a wonderful job in bringing the tale of Benjamin Button to life. The highlight of the film is definitely the remarkable work of cinematography done by Claudio Miranda, whom using digital photography creates scenes of great beauty and impact that give the film a wonderful atmosphere, mix of vintage postcard and dreamlike vision that fits nicely with the fantastical nature of the story. As has become usual in him, Fincher's overall vision for the film proves to be mesmerizing and full of interesting details and creative use of cinematic language in several scenes; although it's too bad that he had not been able to polish more the screenplay he had, as Roth's narrative is kind of typical (and comparisons to his previous "Forrest Gump" are unfortunately inevitable), and doesn't leave much room for experimentation.

Overall the cast is very good and deliver an effective work in their performances. In the title role, Brad Pitt (a frequent face in Fincher's films) is able to prove his talent once more, and makes one of the best performances of his career. Pitt may not exactly be a wonderful actor, but he is certainly a very talented one who can be amazing with a good director (such as Fincher), and when he is good, like this time, he is terrific. As Benjamin's great love, Daisy, Cate Blanchett is excellent, having a very interesting character as a woman with a free spirit who'll have to learn to deal with Benjamin's condition through their lives. The supporting cast is filled with great performances as well, such as Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's adoptive mother, Jared Harris or Tilda Swinton (although her role's potential is sadly wasted, despite being one of the most interesting characters in the film). Also worth of praise are the actors who portrait Benjamin in other stages of his life (under heavy digital and prosthetic make-up), such as Peter Donald Badalamenti II and Tom Everett.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is without a doubt a great film that's brilliantly done and delivers good entertainment in a nice epic story with interesting reflections about life and aging. However, it's by no means as good as it could had been, because despite the huge efforts of both cast and crew (seriously, Fincher's movie is technically a flawless film) of making a masterpiece, something important is wrong, and in my personal opinion, that's the script. Well, perhaps "wrong" is not the appropriate word, but I feel that Roth's screenplay was a bit too shallow in its meditations about life, remaining too often in a "comfort zone", afraid of going too far. Even if one does not compare it to Fitzgerald's story (which is a cynic satire), it still feels incomplete, as if Roth had missed the point by focusing in the love story. And even the love story lacks some emotion at times, and often the characters are more interesting separated than as a couple (Daisy's career as a dancer or Benjamin's trips around the world). Not exactly a good sign for a love story.

But still, one can't deny that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a beautifully done movie, with an interesting concept and probably the best cinematography ever done in digital photography. I just wish the screenplay had been polished a bit more, because I did feel that Roth's story could had gone too far if it had not decided to remain accessible. Considering that both have their protagonist living in a normal world, neither the film nor the short story that inspired are exactly what Mark Twain had in mind with his famous remark; however, both are interesting reflections on life and death, and despite their differences, both are definitely a couple of very interesting and quirky stories.


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