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Monday, December 29, 2008

Curious Case of Benjamin Button (The)

Thank God Christmas comes but once a year. I don’t know about you, but Christmas always means houseguests at our home and inevitably going to the movies can become a negotiation as complicated as working out a peace treaty in the Middle East. Worse yet, once the movie is over, the inevitable shredding of the film takes up the rest of the evening from those who wanted to see something else in the first place. Talk about your open minds! It is harder to change the minds of some of my family than it would be to singlehandedly move a dead elephant across the Adirondacks on a skateboard.

This week we were “blessed” with a visit from my husband’s sister Lisa and her husband Brian from St. Louis, in addition to a wonderful surprise trip here from our perfect son Rick and his partner Jean Luc who live in Paris. My widower Uncle Shlomo also flew in from New York, so it was definitely a full house and an eclectic cross-section of viewers who all joined my perfect husband and me in seeing
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The evening we went to see the three hour epic the theater at the
Essex Cinemas was packed. Apparently a lot of people were curious to see Brad Pitt as an old man slowly growing younger in this fantasy based (very) loosely on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and adapted for the screen by Eric Roth (Lucky You) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha) and directed by David Fincher (Zodiac; Panic Room). I was actually surprised by the turn-out, mostly because other than the mystery of why Benjamin is born an old man and ages backwards there hasn’t been anything to indicate this is a movie with a lot of action or adventure to interest the male members of the audience. Then again, when it came to the vote at home over which film to see this evening The Curious Case of Benjamin Button won the majority by getting the women’s vote (Lisa, me) and the gay vote (Rick and Jean Luc), four to three, with the straight guys (my perfect hubby and my brother-in-law Brian) voting for Valkyrie, and my Uncle Shlomo abstaining on the basis that he didn’t “give a rat’s ass about that Pitt fella, and you’d have to drag me by the toenails to make me sit through a movie about that God-damned Hitler!”

Looking around, I understood that the same general principle that guided my family to the theater on this day may well be the same premise that explained many of the factions sittings in groups throughout the theater. I wondered how many disgruntled husbands had been dragged along to see “that Brad Pitt movie” by their wives and kids.

I think it is safe to say that by the time
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs its final credits three hours later there will be very few of those hostage film-goers or anyone else who will regret seeing what must surely be called one of the best movies of 2008, and certainly the best work of both David Fincher and Brad Pitt’s careers.
It is ironic that for nearly all of Pitt’s twenty-plus years in front of the camera he has fought the image of himself as a sex symbol, hired for his looks more than for his acting talents and basically
dismissed as an actor whose actual talent was never as great a draw as his boyish looks. Well, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button definitely turns that conceit on its head. If anything, it proves what I’ve always thought since seeing Pitt in Fincher’s Se7en. Brad was meant to be a character actor if not “cursed” by so much beauty. Finally he has found the perfect role that demands that his looks be compromised for most of the film to make the story believable and he couldn’t be better.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Pitt plays the title character, born on the last day of The Great War (World War I), in a complicated birth that killed his mother during the process. Horrified by his new son’s ghastly looks, his father (Jason Flemyng; Mirrors) grabs the baby and tries at first to toss the infant into a canal, but then relents and leaves him instead wrapped in his blanket with $18 on the front steps of the first building he comes by, a nursing home, where he sees people inside. Luckily for the baby, he is blessed to be found by a kind-hearted woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson; Smokin' Aces), a young African American caretaker at the nursing home filled with enough quirky and irascible old folks to populate any number of sitcoms for a decade. Despite his obvious impairments and a doctor’s diagnosis that the baby is surely dying, Queenie decides to name him Benjamin and give him love because “he is one of God’s creatures” even though she knows it is out of place for a black woman to be caring for a white infant in this era.

Of course Benjamin doesn’t die and instead grows healthier in the years that pass, becoming friends with a young girl named Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the residents of the home. This becomes a problem for her family, who are unaware of Benjamin’s curious nature, so they misinterpret his child-like interest in Daisy for something more sinister, thus forcing the two “kids” to stay apart. Eventually, Benjamin finds his crippling arthritis getting better and his teeth and hair growing “back” in. Then, slowly his wrinkled skin becomes more elastic, and where there was a frail old man of ninety in a wheelchair he eventually becomes a spry sixtyish guy with the spirit to go to sea and travel the world.

As a crew member on a tug boat, it’s not long before the Captain, Mike (Jared Harris; From Within), introduces the teenage Benjamin to sex and alcohol, taking him to his first brothel after learning that (to him) the old man is (still!) a virgin. From there, Benjamin discovers this whole new aspect of life he’d never known before, and it is not long before he is experiencing his first love affair, with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton; Burn After Reading), the very married wife of an American diplomat he meets while they are all living in a hotel in Russia.

The only real reoccurring woman in Benjamin’s life though remains Daisy in spite of his fling with Elizabeth and any number of prostitutes. As he grows younger, so Daisy grows older, becoming a
world class ballerina (Cate Blanchett; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and they finally realize that they now have an ephemeral chance to love one another as adults, if only for a few short years. This is so much a theme throughout The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ~ that there is nothing permanent in our lives and that it is up to each of us to make the most of the time we are given. By emphasizing the different lenses by which Daisy and Benjamin see the world it shows how simple is the tenet of transience that affects us all even if it appears from many different angles.

The film itself is narrated by Brad in character as Daisy lays dying of old age and asks her now middle-aged daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) to read from his diary. His story focuses mostly on the women in his life, his mother Queenie, his first love Elizabeth, and most of all on the great love of his life, Daisy, depicting the enormous sacrifices they both made because of fate and their circumstances. Writer Roth, who also penned Forrest Gump, imbues Benjamin with many of Forrest’s best traits but with a much higher IQ, not that this is necessary considering that Benjamin is, for the most part, a quiet character who observes much more than he actually says.

All of the cast are outstanding, but besides Brad and Cate, Taraji P. Henson is a standout as Benjamin’s adoptive mother, who shows him more love than anyone has ever shown her. Anyone who has lost their own mother will wish they could find someone as warm and sweet as Queenie. She practically steps off the screen with the power of her performance, and damn well better get an
Oscar nomination if there is any justice in this world.

The other exceptional and Oscar worthy contributors to this film are the 34 make-up artists and the 60+ special effects artists responsible for creating the BEST aging and de-aging make-up effects EVER seen in a film. It is virtually impossible to recognize any make-up or CGI effects involved in turning either Brad Pitt or Cate Blanchett from older to younger or vice versa and yet they do it perfectly. It is almost breath-taking to see Pitt looking as he did at age 18 or 20 again, back when he first made a huge national impression in Thelma and Louise. Having not seen that movie in over a decade or more, it is almost shocking to realize how different the gorgeous boy looked from the more mature (yet still handsome) father of six we know today.

After the movie, my perfect husband being perfect said that I hadn’t changed a bit in the last thirty
years. I know it’s a lie, but it’s always the right lie no matter what the circumstances. Uncle Schlomo, being the less than perfect uncle, asked when my hubby went blind. My son, hoping to make points with his true love, told his partner he would love him “even when (he) was old and wrinkled.” Unfortunately, Jean Luc paused one beat too long before replying, and then said he would love Rick “even if (he) was old and wrinkled. Somehow the ‘if’ instead of ‘when’ started an international incident that is still going on three days later. As for my brother-in-law, he was smart enough to just look into his wife’s eyes and say “I love you” and kiss her deeply while still ankle deep in the popcorn debris of our row. He may be a putz, but at least he’s an observant putz. And that is definitely a lesson to be learned while going to the movies.

1 comment:

coffee said...

i believe Benjamin Button is the third movie David Fincher and Brad Pitt have made together; they must like working together