The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Forrest Gump’s Bleaker Cousin

Despite the hubbub about its striking similarities to Forrest Gump (also written by Eric Roth), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a far grimmer affair. It reeks with the inevitability of death—even though Benjamin’s mother constantly repeats, “You never know what’s comin’ for ya,” it’s evident that we know do. While the film is too long and feels disjointed by its episodic nature, the performances keep us hooked, and the final hour is so bleak and haunting that it stuck with me even though I kept checking my watch for the first ninety minutes.

The story, if you choose not to watch the video linked in the above paragraph, is about a child that is born an incredibly old man and who ages backwards. He is taken in by a black woman (Taraji P. Henson) who runs a home for the elderly in New Orleans, and named Benjamin (Brad Pitt). At a young age, he meets Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett) and we know they are destined for each other. We know since our tale is being narrated by Daisy that they will end up together, and they do when their ages meet in the middle. Around that time is when the characters, and we in the audience, realize that Pitt will begin to get younger quickly as she gets older, and what began as a somewhat fantastical tale of a special manchild’s life becomes a tragic march to the grave.

As with any film of this nature, we meet the same people as Benjamin and see how they shape their life. In particular, I enjoyed Jared Harris as the tugboat captain who had aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist, who teaches Benjamin about women, booze, and instills in him the desire to explore the world. It strikes just the right note of scenery-chewing, and carries the type of natural charisma that helps us understand why Benjamin would attach himself to this man. These types of performances are what make a 3-hour episodic epic float rather than sink, especially one as gloomy as this. Taraji P. Henson also gives a fierce unconditional love to her scenes as the mother.

I suppose we can’t ignore Pitt’s performance through the special effects—it is noted that Pitt doesn’t actually appear on screen for the first fifty minutes. I tend to admire the effects artists and makeup artists more than Pitt for this (the makeup in this film really is among the best old age makeup I can recall seeing in film), but his performance ably carries the film. David Fincher’s direction is surehanded, even if the pacing is more uneven here than in his previous lengthy film, the terrific Zodiac. What stuck with me after the film ended was Blanchett’s performance in the last forty-five minutes or so, as she lives with the reality of Benjamin’s devolution. The late scenes in which she’s walking and holding toddler Benjamin’s hand, or when she’s cradling baby Benjamin, are unsettling as can be. These could be creepy and played with some deep love for an adult in a baby body, but Blanchett plays them with a perfect ambiguity. How is she the only one of the main characters without an Oscar nomination? Her performance is the best of the bunch and the heart of the film— instead of wondering what it would be like to age backward, we leave the theater wondering what it would be like to care for someone who ages backwards. Either way, the last third of the film makes up for the creaks and drags of the first hundred minutes and makes the epic worth the time spent.

~ by russellhainline on February 7, 2009.

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