Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button



[Ed. note 11/25/09 -- I feel that my initial reaction to this film was perhaps too rooted in the aesthetic experience, and while that's not inherently a bad thing in a visual medium I believe I need to revisit this film in the near future to form a more concrete opinion.]

I remember when I read The Great Gatsby. I was in the 9th grade, and I didn't care for it. I thought it was detached and emotionless, setting up the tragedy of Jay Gatsby's life without ever letting us feel his pain. However, in the years since it has become perhaps the only school book I've ever changed my mind on; either I still love the ones I loved then (To Kill a Mockingbird, Othello) or still hate the ones I couldn't stomach (anything written by a Brönte). But I've come to see Fitzgerald's magnum opus in a new light: Fitzgerald was detached because he wanted to be. He spent so much time outlining Gatsby's accomplishments and his riches in order to mock America's system of values; he relegates Daisy to the background so that we do not understand her importance until it is too late for Jay. Perhaps watching "Citizen Kane" turned me around on it, since Welles took so overtly from the story.

"Why is he going on about The Great Gatsby?" some of you may be wondering. "Isn't this film about, I dunno, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?" Yes and no, as it turns out. David Fincher and "Forrest Gump" scribe Eric Roth work with the basic premise of the short story, but they gut everything else. I flipped through the short story a month or two ago, and nothing in that story made it into the film. I think it was for the better; the original was comic farce, but Fincher and Roth retooled it into a moving elegy of Benjamin's predicament. Along the way, it becomes a cinemtic representation for the totality of Fitzgerald's work.

The film opens in a present-day hospital, in which a dying woman has her daughter read to her the memoirs of the titular hero; we then travel back to the end of World War I to witness the birth of a special baby. Born with all the features of a man "well into his eighties and on his way to the grave," Benjamin is abandoned by his father (Jason Flemying) on the doorstep of a black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who runs a nursing home and takes in Ben as her own.

As Benjamin moves through his life, Fincher paints a gorgeous picture of Fitzgerald's prose; everything shimmers with cold, impersonal lighting that makes everything both alluring and repellent. When a teenaged Ben (still an old man on the outside, of course) joins a tugboat crew and winds up in a brothel and bar, the images seem ripped straight from Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. Claudio Miranda is a shoo-in for the Cinematography Oscar (though to be fair, that's because everyone seems to be inexplicably ignoring "The Fall").

Eric Roth's involvement made me wary, but he largely abandons the heavy-handed, preachy stylings of "Forrest Gump." Benjamin is a strange man walking through vital American history, but he does so in the background rather than finding himself in the midst of great historical and pop cultural moments for the sake of winking at the camera. Indeed, a man like Benjamin must live a quiet life; otherwise people wouldn't allow him to live a life at all.

As with Gatsby, Ben's only human connection is a woman. At an early age, Ben meets a young girl named Daisy (probably the biggest nod to Gatsby), who comes to the home to visit her ailing grandmother. There is an instant spark between the two, and as they age Daisy comes to love Benjamin despite his condition. We know from the start that their relationship is doomed, and Fincher directs with the same brutal detachment in which Fitzgerald wrote, yet neither of these traits keeps Ben and Daisy's epic romance from being emotionally devastating. Fincher moves at a lesiurely pace, letting the two grow close ever so slowly only to gently break them apart. Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt help bring the story to life as much as the cinematography; they move through the film at once blending into the Fitzgeraldian world and rising above it as Fitzgerald's characters so often did.

I can't believe I've gone this long without mentioning the effects. In a year where Guillermo Del Toro, the master of modern effects, put out a film, the fact that someone else has the most astonishing and thematic effects is mind-boggling. Fincher uses CGI liberally, but in ways that do not draw attention to themselves: a fluttering hummingbird, the tugboat; these are the types of things people usually bring in computer imagery for. And the makeup? Don't even bother nominating other people in this category; Blanchett and Pitt had to look both older and younger than they are, but not once s their makeup obvious.

The only flaw I can pick out in this three hour journey is the overabundance of cutaways to the hospital. Three of these scenes (the beginning, end, and the moment that Daisy's daughter figures out why she's reading these memoirs) are thematically necessary and relevant, but the rest are simply distracting. But such distractions cannot truly detract from such a visually resplendent, thematically beautiful film.

There is a scene in the middle of the film that will become one of the most iconic in Fincher's oeuvre: a silhoutted Daisy, surrounded in smoke, dances for Ben in an attempt to seduce him. It says all you need to know about his plight: Benjamin gazes in awe, but does not accept her entreaties because he knows that their relationship will end in regret. Of course, he will regret this decision as well. Perhaps that's all the ordinary world can offer for the extraordinary.

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