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The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008,USA)

06/08/2011

Director: David Fincher        Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson

David Fincher is a master craftsman. Not convinced? It’s not like there is any shortage of evidence. From his much (wrongly) maligned debut Alien 3 to 2010’s deserving mega-hit The Social Network, he has proved himself time and again to have an eye for images and a knack for storytelling far superior to most of his peers. Other than Zodiac (which I will get round to one day, honest) the only other gap in the Fincher catalogue for me was The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a fact which I have now remedied.

You are probably familiar with the broad plot outline. Adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald by screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich) it deals with Benjamin Button (Pitt), a child born as an old man who ages in reverse, getting physically younger and younger until he eventually dies an infant. Benjamin leads a varied and interesting life and the film follows his adventures, all the while keeping one eye on the burgeoning relationship between Benjamin and childhood friend Daisy (Blanchett), a relationship complicated by the fact that they are approaching life from opposite ends.

The first thing that struck me about this film is it’s visual beauty. Perfectly rendered period settings are enhanced by flashbacks that adopt a simulated film stock appropriate to the era they represent. A muted but exquisite colour pallette adds a lot of class to the beautiful photography and Fincher isn’t afraid to allow the images to drift into flights of fancy when required by the story. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the work of French auteur Jeunet, a familiarity that doesn’t end with the captivating visuals. Thematically the film deals with the notion of fate and in one particular sequence dwells on the complexity of our fate and how tiny, seemingly insignificant events can have profound effects on our destiny (a concept straight out of Jeunet’s play book).

The sheer oddness of it all is one of its strengths. I must admit I struggled to visualise how the film would play out from both technical and dramatic viewpoints. Fincher’s aptitude for special effects, his innate ability to use them in subtle and understated ways to enhance the story and the images without distracting from them is evident here in spades. The cartoonish flashbacks and asides have clearly been heavily processed to make them feel their age, their simulated vintage film stock and style providing and isntantaneous frame of reference for the audience without detracting from what’s going on in the scenes. The old age effects employed on both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are pretty convincing. Often you are left having to accept some talc in the hair and some reading glasses but here the makeup artists have gone to town, clearly subjecting the actors to hours of gruelling make up but with very satisfactory results. The effect is so convincing that it comes as a bit of a shock when you see the characters at the actors real age and you remember how much work had been done on them to make them look old.

The performances are excellent. Pitt pulls off the curious, perpetually interested Benjamin with confidence and Blanchett’s adventurous, sometimes brazen and always fearful of growing old Daisy is just as endearing. The supporting cast are also strong, particularly Jared Harris as salty, Oirish seadog Captain Mike who gives Benjamin a job on his boat. Boisterous, perpetually drunk and tattooed all over, Mike is the stereotypical ship’s captain and Harris plays him with warmth and a mischievious twinkle in his eye. To come back to the Jeunet parallels for a moment, its exactly the sort of role he would reserve for Dominique Pinon, all comedic bluster and earthy wisdom.

It’s difficult to avoid comparisons between this and Forrest Gump, which is a shame as I can’t abide Gump and I really liked this but the idea – that an outsider, a man different to everyone else around him embarks upon life and experiences it in different ways and different places – is a strong central theme in both of those films. I’d like to think that Eric Roth saw this as a second attempt on the concept and an opportunity to refine that idea. Certainly the idea that Benjamin is met by superficial judgements (even at birth, abandoned by his father after his mother dies in childbirth partially because he blames Benjamin for his wife’s death but mostly because he is hideously afflicted) that make it harder for him to fulfill his dreams and desires echoes similar moments in Forrest Gump. This time though Roth has eschewed saccharine sentimentality and Benjamin is much more capable of using people’s misconcpetions of him to his own advantage.

As an examination of life and the human condition it works wonderfully. The core relationship between Benjamin and Daisy seems doomed to never come to fruition, she’s too young, he’s too old, until at some point they meet somewhere in the middle and are able to share their lives although they do so under the shadow of the fact that at some point she will get older and he will get younger and the situation will be reversed. It’s a reminder that life is finite as are the moments that comprise life and so we should do our utmost to live those moments to the full. It also serves to remind us that we leave this world the same way we come into it, facing it alone in our own way.

Variously moving, funny, exciting, heartwarming and tragic it was a film full of surprises for me, all of them pleasant. If I was to level any criticism at it, it would have to be to do with the peculiar Hurricane Katrina framing device that seems to have been added on as a courtesy to the people of New Orleans where the film was set. The original story was set in Baltimore but at the request of the studio was moved to New Orleans to take advantage of tax breaks so perhaps this was Fincher’s way of acknowledging that disaster on the big screen? If you see him, ask him for me. It’s also a little bit too long, weighing in at two and a half hours, the last twenty minutes or so do start to drag a little bit and it may have benefitted from tightening up a little. Having said that, it’s difficult to spot where much time could have been gained and it is more of a minor quibble than a major problem.

Unless Zodiac (when I finally get around to seeing it) turns out to be a load of garbage I am definitely prepared at this stage to describe David Fincher as a bona fide genius who can do no wrong and just as willing to recommend The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a film that is difficult to describe but a joy to watch.

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