Thursday, December 25, 2008
By Harry Forbes
"We're meant to lose the people we love; how else are we to know how important they are to us?" a character asks rhetorically in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount), an overly long but highly imaginative expansion (and updating) of a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.
And in the story of a man born old who grows younger in appearance as he ages, death is always part of the fabric of life.
The story opens in New Orleans, where the titular character, played most impressively throughout by Brad Pitt narrating with a languorous Southern accent, is born with the face of an old man, as his mother dies in childbirth. His crazed-with-grief father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), races out of their house, and deposits the baby on the steps of a retirement home.
Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the black attendant there, takes pity on the child, and announces to her skeptical male companion (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) that she will raise the white child, and so she lovingly does. In this environment, death is a natural and frequent occurrence that everyone takes in stride.
Young Benjamin, with his wizened face and bald pate, hobbles around like an arthritic oldster, and under Queenie's overly protective care is rarely allowed to venture far from the home.
One of the elderly residents introduces him to her granddaughter Daisy (Elle Fanning), who seems to glean Benjamin's youthful spirit, and a bond develops.
As Benjamin ages, he starts to look marginally younger, though is still an elderly man. He joins the staff of a tugboat run by rough-hewn Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who introduces Benjamin to his first sexual experience at a brothel. (Except for this very brief scene, overt sexual elements are minimal.) Later, and now looking like the Brad Pitt we know, he has his first love affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a diplomat in the Russian seaport of Murmansk.
When he returns to New Orleans, he meets the grown Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an aspiring ballet dancer. Though she boldly suggests an affair, he declines, and they do not connect romantically until much later in the story (when their respective ages are better matched). When they do, the romance is bittersweet, knowing their time together will be all too brief as they age in opposite directions.
Under David Fincher's direction, the leads deliver very fine performances and the outstanding digital effects make the forward and backward aging remarkably believable. Blanchett is first seen as a dying old woman, having her daughter (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin's diary.
Eric Roth's clever script (with Robin Swicord) more than a little resembles his earlier "Forrest Gump." The rich production design and atmospheric cinematography are further pluses.
This most unusual and often melancholy story -- presenting as it does a unique, often profound perspective on the transience of human life and how we deal with the people we meet and the things we experience including death -- makes thought-provoking and ultimately poignant viewing. Print this post