On Thanksgiving Day, 1930, a young girl named Daisy (Elle Fanning, "Babel") visits her Grandma Fuller (Phyllis Somerville, "Little Children") at a New Orleans nursing home and meets a very odd boy. Benjamin is also seven years old, but he looks like a little old man. As Daisy (Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth," "I'm Not There') grows older he grows younger until they consummate their love affair at the same age in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Director David Fincher ("Se7en," "Zodiac") leaves his violent thrillers behind to take on this technically ambitious romantic reverie on the ephemeral qualities of life and love, but after the ignored masterpiece that was last year's "Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" falls oddly short. The adapted screenplay by Eric Roth, who seems to have only used F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story for its backwards aging concept and his own "Forrest Gump" as the outline, gives us a central character who is far too passive and fails to apply the wisdom of age to youth in any profound way.
The film opens in the hospital room of Daisy (Blanchett, speaking like the aged woman she is marvelously made up to be), who asks her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl"), to read from the diary of one Benjamin Button. A tale is told of a blind clockmaker, Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas, "Zodiac"), who constructs a grand clock for the New Orleans train station. On its unveiling, it is discovered to run backwards, a tactic used by Gateau to bring back his son and other boys who died during WWI. Benjamin is born on this day, causing his mother's death in childbirth and his father's (Jason Flemyng, "Layer Cake") rejection. He is left on the back steps of the home where he will be found by his adoptive mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, "Hustle & Flow"), who tells her elderly residents that he is her sister's misfortune, but that Benjamin got the worst of it, having been born white.
A nursing home turns out to be the ideal place to grow up, its residents full of skills (one woman with an old dog teaches Benjamin to play piano) and stories (Mr. Daws (Ted Manson, "Nights in Rodanthe") tells tales of having been struck by lightening seven times, illustrated by Fincher like Guy Maddin outtakes). The house becomes quiet for a while when a resident passes and Benjamin learns about death at a young age. It takes younger people to introduce Benjamin to the ways of the world.
Ngunda Oti (Rampai Mohadi), a Pygmy friend of Queenie's lover Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), takes Benjamin out for the first time, leaving the boy alone to find his way back home. Later, Benjamin meets Captain Mike (Jared Harris, "Ocean's Twelve," this film's Lt. Dan character) looking for cheap labor for his tug boat (aka shrimper). Cpt. Mike introduces Benjamin to liquor and women (his first prostitute, played by Yasmine Abriel, is a ringer for Angelina Jolie). At the brothel, Benjamin also meets Thomas Button, a wealthy button manufacturer who maintains a friendship with the boy without revealing their true relationship. At the age of seventeen, Queenie having had a natural child with Tizzy, Benjamin leaves for Russia with Captain Mike and learns about love from the wife of an English spy, Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"), but she leaves abruptly and WWII finds Benjamin one of two survivors of an Atlantic U-Boat attack. On his return, Benjamin reunites with Daisy, but the ballet dancer is involved with someone else, if not mostly herself. It is not until an accident in Paris (staged like a 'beat of the butterfly's wings' sequence from Thomas Tykwer's "Run Lola Run") robs Daisy of her ability to dance that she and Benjamin finally connect as a couple. (When she first sees him as someone about her own age, she gasps 'You're perfect,' as if his appearance is all that convinces her.) Daisy and Benjamin marry and have a child, but time once again drives a wedge between the two lovers.
Benjamin is a creature like the LOTR's Gollum, a computer graphic image created from the movements of variously sized actors and Brad Pitt's face (Pitt takes him on when the character is about sixty.) But unlike the Gollum, Benjamin lives in a human world and the animators can never quite get the eyes right, both for the old and impossibly young stages of the character while he resembles Pitt. The created character's movements resemble nothing so much as the evolution of ape to man walking upright. It's a remarkable achievement even if it fails to utterly convince. Pitt as Button is placid, kind and gentle, accepting, but the character gives him few notes to play. As the digitally enhanced twentyish to old Daisy, Blanchett is more impetuous, selfish and alive, but there is no feeling of grand passion between her and Pitt. Her performance is more impressive for the physical demands of creating a dancer in her prime and post-injury. Swinton is an amusing ice queen as Button's first love. In fact, the movie's most moving scene is when Button momentarily ignores Daisy to watch a televised report of his first love's feat of swimming the English Channel at the age of sixty. Pitt radiates affection here (just as he radiates lust when Daisy finally acquiesces at the right age). The wonderful Henson is the only source of consistent warmth in this cooly contemplative film.
Roth was inspired setting the tale in New Orleans, which lends a magical air throughout while offering up the city as another example of 'nothing lasts.' A hummingbird, like Gump's swirling leaf or box of chocolates, is a symbol of infinity, appearing in impossible and catastrophic places. Like Forrest, Benjamin is a simple man who eventually weds a more intelligent and worldly woman, only to lose her after the birth of a child. He observes history passing by, albeit with less cultural flash points than Gump experienced.
Unlike "Gump's" director, though, Fincher sidesteps the sentimental and maudlin. Admirable, but he also fails to fully engage us in the love story which is central to his film. "Button" is more a film of surface beauty which reminds us how illusory it all is. Alexandre Desplat's ("Girl with a Pearl Earring," "The Golden Compass") score is also too tentatively soft.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a dreamy reverie ('Life is but a dream...') that is perhaps too out of character for the director who gave us "Fight Club" and "Se7en." It is a good film, but may have been better served by another.
Robin gives "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" a B-.
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