Saturday 8 October 2016

Movie Review: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)

A grand fantasy romance, The Curious Of Benjamin Button has a quirky premise but delivers an eloquent love story featuring a man living life in reverse.

It's 2005 in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina is quickly bearing down on the city. The elderly Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett) is on her hospital deathbed, and insists that her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) read to her from the diary of a certain Benjamin Button. Most of the story is then told in flashback.

In 1918, Benjamin is born with the wrinkles, cataracts, arthritis and failing body of an old man. His mother dies during childbirth and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) abandons Benjamin to the care of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works at a home for the elderly. As Benjamin grows older in age, his body gets younger in health. His hair starts to grow back, his eyesight improves, and a visit to a faith healer gets him out of his wheelchair and on the way to walking. In 1930 Benjamin first meets seven-year-old Daisy (Elle Fanning) and they become friends.  Around 1935 he leaves the nursing home and accepts his first job, working on the tugboat of the salty Captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris). Daisy pursues her fortune as a ballet dancer in New York City.

In 1941 Clark's boat is stationed in the port city of Murmansk, Russia, where Benjamin experiences his first true love and has a passionate affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the bored wife of a British diplomat. The US joins World War Two and Benjamin has a harrowing encounter with the enemy on the high seas. After the war Benjamin tries to reconnect with Daisy (Blanchett), but their lives are on different trajectories. Meanwhile, his father Thomas reappears with surprising news about an industrial legacy awaiting Benjamin.

Directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a loose adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Roth sprinkles the script with plenty of similarities to his own average man lives an extraordinary life as portrayed in Forrest Gump, and monumental but impossible romance through a diary lens popularized by The English Patient. Benjamin Button both suffers from comparisons to the two classics and benefits from the whimsical stars of destiny are aligning ethos. Meanwhile, Fincher makes sure that no matter what is happening on the screen over close to three hours, the film looks spectacular: Benjamin Button is frequently a sumptuous visual feast.

The film's weakness resides in the relative dormancy of its central character. Intriguing as his story is, Benjamin Button does not actually do much in his own life. He is swept along by the tide of history, navigating from 1918 to about 1990 in reverse health progression, things happening to him and all around him, but he himself instigating little. Daisy and Elizabeth steer the two big romances in his life, while his mother Queenie, the captain Mike Clark and Benjamin's father Thomas influence most of his life's directions. It is only late on that Benjamin independently insists on one key decision, but it's a relatively small contribution to a drama where he is most often a passenger and observer.

The film's first half nestles the more magical spirit and is more powerful, Benjamin's childhood years in the more innocent pre-war era resonating through a New Orleans open to strange events. That no one pursues answers to Benjamin's curious medical condition both raises the eyebrow and helps add fairy tale gold dust to the story. The second half is still interesting but less compelling. Benjamin and Daisy have to wait for a sweet spot of harmony as he grows younger and she matures, and there are typical emotional trials and tribulations as they find and then struggle to retain their couplehood.

The subtle and progressive makeup effects are a marvel, with Brad Pitt thriving as he convincingly portrays a physically frail teenager growing into an immature 70 year old in a young man's body. Cate Blanchett is less effective, particularly as the bed-ridden near-death Daisy, her mumbled and drugged lines of dialogue extremely difficult to discern.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button reaches most of the sentimental high notes that it strives for, and contains enough of its own peculiarities to overcome the more derivative fundamentals.

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