Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

If ever the meaning of Robert Frost's poem was lost on you, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be all the explanation you'll ever need. It's a film all about the impermanence of life, from the fleeting years of childhood to the brief hours of a love affair to the waning days of a life fully lived. As a reworking of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story, David Fincher's film is a marvel to behold, but upon closer inspection the story itself isn't the thrilling, life-affirming yarn we're led to believe it is.

As he narrates early on in the film, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born under 'unusual circumstances'. He was born as a baby with all the physical attributes of an elderly man on the verge of death. Every day, he gets a day younger while everyone around him gets a day older. This conceit alone is enough to drive the story forward, as we watch Benjamin have to cope at seemingly every turn with the fact that his condition is one that literally nobody else understands.

It can't be said that the idea isn't an interesting one to toy with. Early on, during Benjamin's 'younger' years, he is taken to a brothel by an eccentric tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who's under the impression that Benjamin is a 60 year old virgin. It's incidents like this that give the film any flavor at all, and as the story settles into it's primary groove, we are afforded fewer and fewer interesting facets of Benjamin's condition. Once it becomes clear that the story is going to follow the romance between Benjamin and his longtime friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett), it becomes much like any other romance.

And this turns out to be the film's downfall. In relying almost solely on the aging concept to drive the story, the film ends up playing the same note over and over again until it no longer has any need to. Two hours into the film, it becomes clear the direction the story is going to take, and the story struggles to keep the audience's attention, relying almost solely on Cate Blanchett's performance to carry the third act. This would've been acceptable had the third act not been a foregone conclusion alluded to constantly for the previous two hours. As it is, we know where the story is going, and there's simply not much joy to be found in watching Benjamin's life wind down just as so many before him have done.

Of course, none of this rests on David Fincher's direction. This is perhaps the best directed film of his career, from the opening studio credit to the final fade out, there's never a dull moment to be had (visually speaking). Fincher utilizes all sorts of camera tricks and filming techniques to show us a story seemingly without time. If not for the superb computer-generated de-aging effects on Brad Pitt, you'd swear this were a film out of another era. Plot and script issues aside, this film is breathtaking to watch.

I know it seems like I'm placing a lot of judgement on the script, but that's because it's really my only problem with Benjamin Button. Fincher's direction is spot-on, most (if not all) of the cast pull their weight admirably (especially the minor players), and it is a fascinating character study. But the main crux of the film just ultimately collapses under its own weight. If you're willing to accept that the film is a pretty big downer and that the script runs out of steam considerably short of the finish line, you'll find that Benjamin Button has a lot else to offer.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

No comments: