When I first saw the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I dismissed it immediately. It seemed hokey: a story about a man who would be born with the qualities of an older human and then regress (or perhaps I should say progress) through his life aging backwards – that is to say, getting younger? Complete novelty. I had no intentions of even seeing the movie until it’s DVD release. I happened to be out with a friend and we decided we had enough time to make one of the showings. I’m glad that I was wrong about this film – completely wrong. And I’m a better person for having seen it.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stars Brad Pitt in the title role, but for me, this was a Brad Pitt unlike I had ever seen before. I myself had been guilty of dismissing Pitt as a shallow actor who imagined himself to be an “actor’s actor”. He took me by surprise in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and this film presented Pitt in a completely different way. While I still feel that Heath Ledger captured my attention by transforming himself more than any other actor so far this year, Brad Pitt made a last minute run at taking that crown.
It’s difficult to describe the plot without taking away from the enjoyment of actually seeing the film (and so I won’t do that.) The best way to describe the film will also be one of the films biggest criticisms: “It’s kinda like Forrest Gump”. I agree that it brings about some of the tender moments that audiences felt while watching Gump. But for my money, Benjamin Button is much more substantive. I’ve always taken flack for my opinion that Forrest Gump was an incredibly overrated film. For me, the 1994 Gump release was memorable for the way that it carried the viewer across a journey spanning several decades, many of which coincide during key events in world history. But to me Gump always seemed more like an ‘everyman’s epic film’. The coincidental happenings set against icons that were typical of each era and decade made the film kinda campy. Benjamin Button is truly epic, and not just because it spans several decades as well. Where I felt that the character of “Forrest Gump” gets overshadowed by the events of the film, the events in Button act more like they should – a setting or a backdrop for the film and the focus is more more squarely on the characters. Actually there are many more coincidences that this film has with Forrest Gump: the hometown girl who steals his heart, the charming loving qualities of the lead actor, the ‘fish out of water’ sequences. Let’s just say that both films have their redeeming qualities. Yet for me, Button has the soulful substance that will insure that I’ll be watching this film a few times.
OK, I guess I’m obligated to give a bit more about the plot than just to say it was kinda like another film. As mentioned, a child is born in a state that makes his physical body incredibly old. He has all of the qualities of an older man. But strangely as time moves on, his body gets younger at the same rate that a normal human’s body will age. And the rest of the film reveals the developments of his life: who he meets, who he loves, who affects his life and the lives of those that he affects. This is a tender film and the best way to appreciate the progression of the story is by watching.
I didn’t realize that one of my favorite directors (David Fincher) directed this film. Like Danny Boyle, Fincher is truly an incredible director in that his greatness isn’t limited to a particular genre of film. This film can probably best be described as a family drama, yet it is every bit as engaging and incredible as Fincher’s other more action-driven dramas like Fight Club and Seven. Another criticism that the film is sure to suffer is for it’s length. At two hours and forty minutes, it is certainly longer than other films. But this isn’t your average “opening, plot, conflict, resolve, close”. This is an epic film and it needs to take it’s time – if for no other reason than to give the proper pacing to allowing the audience to appreciate the physical effects of Benjamin Button’s condition. And speaking of the condition…
This movie will surely take a few awards at this year’s Oscars, but the award for which no other films should even bother to compete is for make-up and effects. My being a geek actually hurt my enjoyment of the film. Let me explain: Normally I can tell right away how make-up or prosthetic effects are done. With this movie, I was completely distracted. I found myself spending way too much time trying to figure out how in the world they created their magic. In the scenes where Button is in his early years in a wheelchair, clearly it isn’t Brad Pitt’s body. It can’t be. But somehow, I see his expressions and hear his voice. It’s as if they superimposed Pitt’s face acting on a CGI rendering of the body. The only problem is that I’m about 60% sure that the body isn’t a CGI rendering, because I don’t see any of the typical clues that CGI usually leaves. In the end, (if you’re NOT a geek like me) the beautiful effects and make-up will fit in wonderfully with the story. You’ll watch the film and be amazed at how not only Benjamin progresses in age, but at how the other characters age as well. The effects are award-worthy, not because of their flashiness, but because of the subtlety and their believability.
I think what made this movie so special for me is the southern charm that Benjamin Button possesses. Quite simply, he’s easy to love. This is a bit of a problem for me because I usually find myself turned off by the cocky, sharp tongued, shallow, perfect bodied character that Pitt is cast in. But here, much of what he conveys is done through his perfect timing in delivering his lines. We also get a lot from his expressions. The script is wonderfully written and results in him having very truthful and heartfelt exchanges with other characters. It is such a departure from the roles that I’m used to seeing Pitt in. (Admittedly, sometimes a bit of personal bias enters when I watch Pitt. It’s none of my business how he chooses to live his off-screen life. And I’m not the kinda guy who watches TMZ – even a little bit. But it’s hard to think about the situation with Jennifer Aniston and not bring up the image of the older male actor who simply fell out of love and ‘upgraded’. I feel horrible for saying it, but occasionally this goes through my mind while I’m watching him. But despite my carrying that baggage with me to the theater, I saw something in Benjamin Button that was as far away from Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a role can get. I saw a character that was tender and real and true. At times while I was watching Button, I kept remarking at just how genuine he was. He was the ultimate gentleman. He’s the man I can only wish myself to be during my better moments. His character holds no sense of revenge or ill will. Some of this is the script. But this only works because of what Brad Pitt brings to the character.
There were a few problems I had with the film. It loses a bit of momentum towards the end of the film. There’s a narration technique that’s used throughout the film that should help carry the story, but I couldn’t help but feel that it almost hurts it a bit in places. (I can see that using the technique quickens the pace of a film that is already nearing three hours long.) The cast is strong, but there are a few casting choices I might have done differently. (There’s an actor playing the role of ‘Benjamin Button’ in the last part of the film that I felt could have been a closer likeness to Brad Pitt. Also, I felt that there was a bit of ‘cheating’ that comes as they try to carry out Benjamin’s aging towards the end of the film – especially considering how strong the first three quarters of the film was. But these are all minor niggles of a film that truly captured my imagination.
It’s a shame that I almost missed seeing this film before the holiday season was done. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the perfect holiday film. When you hear about a “condition” that causes you to age in reverse, initially you believe that everyone would be lining up to have such a fate. However, watching the film helps you realize and appreciate that the condition comes at a cost, and it’s more than just physical. The problems that the condition causes in social situations that we take for granted makes the viewer appreciate just how alone someone aging this way must feel. There’s a theme here. Actually there are several themes, and having seen the film only once, I haven’t quite worked them all out yet. One thread that weaves throughout the film seems to trace back to some idea that true beauty is not physical. There are also some themes of love and loyalty. And the fact that I haven’t worked this all out speaks to just how rich the experience is. I found myself tearing up a few times during the film and at moments that probably weren’t purposefully trying to evoke that response. One such scene is a during an exchange between Benjamin and his father at the end of his dad’s life.
Yes, the film is long. Yes, this is seemingly like Forrest Gump in some ways. But anyone who can’t look past those two qualities is incredibly short-sighted. Unlike many other films this season, Button is actually worth the three hours that it asks you to invest in viewing it. (Look at it this way: Watching Button once is a much better choice than seeing two mediocre hour and forty five minute films!)