Amazingly, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN manages to be completely devoid of any sort of magical or poetic realism that was sorely missing.
If it sounds like I’m jumping too far into the deep end, you’d be right.
Let me go back a moment.
The short story from which this film was adapted, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not the great romantic nor epic story the film would like you to believe. In short, it is more like a “youth wasted on the young” parable.
But, in any case, David Fincher has risen to the occasion, perhaps more inspired by the possiblities of simply visually representing a man that is literally aging backwards.
The film tells the story of the tiltular character, Benjamin, who upon being born at the end of World War I in New Orleans, is a baby…..only with lots of wrinkles, cataracts and the general defects that come with being eighty years old.
His mother dies giving birth to him, while his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), is so appalled by the appearance of his son that he attempts to kill the baby. He is stopped by a security guard and instead Benjamin is placed at the doorsteps of a nursery home, run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, a loving and warm performance). She is immediately struck by the baby’s vulnerability as opposed to its grotesque appearance.
She christens him Benjamin, and he “grows up” in the nursery home, alongside equally wizened people who think that he is either really seven years old, or a sevenety year old man who is probably crazy.
It quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is aging backwards. That is, his mind is aging fowards, but his body isn’t.
The true implications of this are not fully explored, sadly. But, in any case, Benjamin, while a “teenager” on, goes off on several adventures, some of which include a job as a deck hand on a tug-boat run by a crusty captain, a romantic affair with Tilda Swinton in Russia, World War II at sea in the tug boat, until finally he returns home.
In his life, a girl named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) drifts in and out, but it’s made clear that they were made for each other. She sees the youth beneath his old exterior. As they both grow up, she becomes a succesful ballet dancer.
At about the half-way point, the film takes a drastic shift in tone and becomes a romantic-drama. Which is….fine…I guess.
It feels like someone slapped two completely different films together that just happen to have the same actors and premise. Truly, despite the echoeing of older sequences as well as the prosthetic aging of actors, everything from the latter half feels and looks different. While I’m sure this is a stylistic decision…it doesn’t work.
To be honest, the entire gimmick of this man aging backwards and growing younger should be something of the epicenter, which it is…for the first hour and a half or so.
Unfortunately, Fincher loses his way as the film progresses.
But the visual flair, craft and textures are glorious. Most of the film is drenched in stylistic wash: rooms are littered with period detail simply because they can; everything has a sepia/gold tone to it, with flashes of color and light. The special effects are sparkling and amazing.
This leads me to the whole conceptions of Brad Pitt even playing Benjamin Button the entire film, even though, for a good chunk, the actor is not really physically there.
The young sequences are incredible in that the body double has a CGI head that is voiced by Brad Pitt from a recording studio, and yet, the body double, (a very small person mind you) is also performing; miming you might say.
And then the little girl Daisy…is voiced by Cate Blanchett. And it is very obvious. Despite the attempts to cover it up, it becomes increasingly apparent that the voice sounds just a tad too low. A tad too crisp. A tad too….old.
While this is certainly cool, it doesn’t too much than to completely weird you out with its alienating effect.
In any case though, everything is incredible. The tug boat sequences are genuinely great and in some ways, you kind of wish there was more time spent there.
But alas, Fincher clearly wanted to make an epic. There’s a major problem with that though. The film isn’t EPIC enough.
That’s right. Despite some big, spectacular scenes, the sweep, the loads and loads of characters, the big themes, the high romance, the low moments, the everything….it seems too intimate for its own good.
Which is a shame, because this is a film begging to be epic on the scale of a David Lean film.
Fincher does get the look down right, but the pacing, the tone, is generally muddled throughout.
And don’t get me started on the final parts of the film, which is major “What could have been…”-fest.
Obviously, the death of everyone is foregone conclusion in this film. That being said, why in god’s name do they have the incredibly young Benjamin run off for several years for no good reason other than because “Oh, my daughter won’t like me because I’ll be, like sixteen when she’ll be close to twenty….”
But that would’ve been so much more interesting than a bunch of vintage looking footage of Brad Pitt wandering around India for no discernible reason.
Actually, no, I’m not not done here yet. Why does the adolescent Button suddenly have dementia? That makes….absolutely no sense. Really, it doesn’t. You can’t explain to me otherwise, and if you do, I’ll punch you in the face.
It seems like something went horribly wrong with the writer. Oh wait, he wrote the “Forest Gump” screenplay. Hmmmm…
This might explain the inexplicably disjointed, totally unfunny humor that perhaps he thinks is hilarious….except when it isn’t….which is most of the time.
(Though the man who claimed to have been struck by lightning seven times was genuinely funny. The man who sat by the river…not so much)
Which is a shame, because, really, what I really wanted to see was Benjamin becoming a fetus and then becoming nothing-ness; the size of an atom, and thus, he would’ve been recreated because of some sort of spiritual bull-shit or something.
It certainly would’ve been better than the TWO framing devices used. That’s right, TWO.
Not just one, but two, both of which are completely at odds with each other.
Let me put it this way…the film was in production shortly after Katrina.
And it was shot in New Orleans.
Thus, the first framing device we get is…Old Blanchett being Old, dying, speaking to her daughter. They’re in the hospital, and…Hurricane Katrina is coming up.
Then old Blanchett tells a story about a blind clockmaker who’s son died in WWI, and thus, decided to make a clock that ticked backwards, symbolic of ALL the young men who die, saying that in a hopeful world, perhaps the clock’s backward ticking might bring back everyone home.
This sequence is done as if it was shot on scratchy film stock, complete with hiss and pop sounds.
The blind clockmaker is hardly every brought up again. We do, however, constantly get these jump backs to Blanchett in the hospital and her daughter. These moments bring the film to screeching halts every time it happens.
And then, to top it off, we get the daughter reading Button’s DIARY! ARRRGHHHH. I lied. There’s three framing devices.
Seriously, the story is as much about death and life as it is about time and its persistence. Except….it seemed that Fincher didn’t care about that.
But…like I said before, the film lacks a whimsical quality which is aggresively dropped in favor of serio-romance-drama stuff which is more commonly found on TV movies or TV shows.
In fact, had the aging gimmick been dropped entirely, you would’ve had a typical journeyman Hollywood film. Talk about ironic…
But, it has to be said. Fincher, the actors, everybody…they all do their jobs superbly well. Brad Pitt especially is marvellous is contributing his touches to the incarnations of Benjamin throughout time. His souther drawl is particularly memorable.
The score is quiet, and yet, soft and heavy. It is highly romantic but not sweeping. Whether this is a bad or good thing is up for debate in my book. But it is a wonderful score nonetheless.
I suppose most of the film’s problems can be pinned on the screenwriter, Eric Roth.
So I suppose CURIOUS CASE… is still eligible for another adaptation or even remake, for there are elements introduced that add some nice depth.
The characters at the nursing home is a particularly inspired invention, especially Queenie. Of course, once Benjamin hits the half-way mark, everything is pretty much excised in favor of the love story which is, to be frank, completely and utterly unecessary.
Oh well…what could have been. At least Fincher is the consumate craftsman…