Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

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Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a story of a man born with the physical characteristics and appearance of an 80-year-old man. He grows younger and younger as the years pass on, which makes him an outsider to those that know of his affliction. However, that is not to confuse physical appearances with the heart, mind and soul of a man. Benjamin Button’s aging process, as has been pointed out by others, is merely a metaphor for how the beginning and ends of our lives are no different whether lived backwards or forward with a focus on the importance of how we live the moments in between. Beyond that, I ask you to not even consider Benjamin’s “curious” aging process and simply get involved in the story.

Benjamin is born in beautifully recreated New Orleans of the early 1900s; his mother dies only seconds later and as a result his father runs off and leaves Benjamin on the doorstep of an old folks home where he will grow up and come to know a caretaker named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) as his mother. The retirement home is an obvious irony, but it is a perfect one at that; watching an old man scold Benjamin for fooling around on the outside porch in his wheelchair is priceless. From here Benjamin continues to grow into his body. His arthritis soon disappears and he begins work on a tugboat, which leads him into World War II at the age of 17. Seen as an old man, as his face would lead you to believe he is in his 50s, the tugboat’s Captain Mike (Jared Harris) buys Benjamin his first drink and finds him a prostitute for what would be his first sexual encounter. You are experiencing life with Benjamin, a man who always seems an outsider and yet his life is not much different than that of anyone else.

Cate Blanchett plays Daisy whom we first meet laid up in a hospital dying of old age as Hurricane Katrina rages outside. Reading to her is her daughter Caroline played by Julia Ormond. The story of Benjamin’s life is told from Daisy’s hospital room as Caroline reads from Benjamin’s diary and the love between Daisy and Benjamin comes to light. The two first become friends as youngsters and ultimately come together again at a time in Benjamin’s life when his appearance has caught up with his age. The love between Daisy and Benjamin is at the heart of this story and despite its movie love cliches I fell for it hook, line and sinker.

I won’t go so far as to say this is a perfect movie (what movie really is?), but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. The film is as beautifully told as it is visually appealing. Some are sure to have a problem with the simplicity of it all, but that is a realistic expectation considering the film’s two hour and 46 minute running time, but epic it is not. The simple narrative with one extraordinary factor is the film’s ultimate appeal. However, despite its simplicity and its nearly three hour duration I never once looked at my watch or wondered when it would all end. It felt like no more than 90 minutes and I would gladly sit through it again and hope I get to do so very soon.

From a technical perspective the film is flawless. From the beautiful cinematography by director David Fincher’s longtime collaborator Claudio Miranda to the production designers across the board as this film is certain to be an Oscar favorite in most every design category. The script, adapted by Eric Roth from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name will be compared by many to Roth’s earlier Oscar-winning adaptation, Forrest Gump, but the experiences Gump has compared to Benjamin are wildly fantastical while Button’s life is more-or-less ordinary outside of his unique aging process.

Cate Blanchett has already been discussed in many corners as a potential Best Actress nominee for a performance shifting from the life of a passionate dancer, to a lover and to an old woman. Blanchett, as always, is great in the role, playing an active listener as an old woman and a hurricane force as a younger woman. However, the performance of the film belongs to Pitt. I have read anything from praise to dismissal for Pitt’s quiet performance of Benjamin Button, but to me it was flawless.

As a young man Pitt’s aged face was superimposed onto the body of a little person using copious amounts of CGI, but to such a point you can never tell. His character is oftentimes limited to only a couple of words per scene, but it is the quiet and reserved manner in which they are delivered that caught my attention. Benjamin’s voice also serves as the film’s narrative voiceover as Caroline reads from his diary, a point some have harped on and I can’t completely disagree. If there is one problem with the film it is the inclusion of Daisy’s daughter as her reactions to the story are, for the most part, foregone conclusions and offer very little to the emotions of the story. The connection is always between Daisy and Benjamin and had they abandoned the reading of the diary entirely this film would have been shorter and most likely much easier for many to enjoy.

For all its worth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a masterpiece. I believe even its detractors will be able to enjoy it much more as time passes. Some have said the older you are the more you will connect with the story, I am only 31-years-old so I don’t know how much older you need to be, but I see no reason why anyone looking for a great story, told from a unique perspective would not also fall in love with this film.

GRADE: A

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