Modern American film has seen a lull in classical style. A good modern film is hard-edged, like that of “No Country For Old Men” or “There Will Be Blood.” They are politically appropriate and justly praised, yet one can’t help but yearn for a reawakening of that classical style that seemed to have died in the 1990s (with few exceptions). Who would expect a director like David Fincher (“Seven”, “Fight Club”) to be the man to bring back that style? With his new film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Fincher brings back the hero’s tale in the vein of “Forrest Gump,” infuses his own style and serves the Academy just the audience-drawing film that they need for ratings. The film is far from perfection, but shows us – just like its main character – that going back in time isn’t always the worst thing to do.
Benjamin Button is not your average person. Born at the age of 80, Benjamin inexplicably grows younger through his years. Portrayed both digitally and literally by Brad Pitt from birth to the teenage years, Benjamin is an unlikely hero. Growing up in a nursing home, he learns about death at a very young (or old?) age. However, raised by the gracious Queenie (played by “Hustle & Flow’s” Taraji P. Henson) Benjamin finds that he is never without love. He is confused by death (often because Queenie is sure he’s close to the grave at every moment) but he does understand love to the fullest. This is evident when he meets Daisy, as portrayed in the film by a number of actresses most notably Cate Blanchett (who is featured both in the story of B.B. and in the frame of the story as her daughter reads it to her).
Benjamin grows up and like his cinematic forefather Forrest Gump, he makes his own way through life through all sorts of discoveries. These discoveries come through in the form of the film’s greatest resources: the supporting characters. Whether he’s fighting the war on a tugboat with his mentor Captain Mike (Jared Harris) or connecting with the man who Benjamin learns is his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) or hearing from Mr. Daws (Ted Manson) about his bouts with lightning (which prove to be comedic highlights), Benjamin learns from others in a way he never expected. He’s a somewhat unorthodox hero, but he’s absolutely endearing due to his unabashedly fascinating life.
Benjamin is a man who is always searching for himself, but always finds Daisy. It’s an awe-inspiring tale of determination and curiosity of the human spirit that is always a joy to find in the multiplex. Brad Pitt does well with characterization and with his script, although the character of Benjamin is hardly as fleshed out as it could have been. He may find himself with a nomination in January, although there seem to be a lot of contenders this year. Benjamin is highly conflicted person, often staying quiet and subdued and Pitt does that marvelously. One major setback to the film is the fact that I will never be as handsome as Brad Pitt.
While screenwriter Eric Roth writes a great story and Fincher shoots a beautiful work, the film is just too long. Fincher directed last year’s excellent “Zodiac” and that film had the same detraction. I don’t blame you if you check your watch a couple of times during the film. Other problems audiences may have are the film’s clichés such as the similarities to “Forrest Gump” or its dreamlike quality or some of the familiar characters. The film is a bit overblown and can be certainly too overwhelming at parts, but nitpicking will distract you from the real, subtle beauty the film has to offer.
The film thrives upon its supporting characters. Jared Harris is sublime as Captain Mike, a man who lives on the sea yet never lets it break him. Harris gives the somewhat clichéd character a humorous buoyancy, and one can’t help but smile when he’s on screen. Taraji P. Henson is a name that is far from household status, but she does very well as Queenie, adding liveliness to the common mother role that is often just another stereotype. Jason Flemyng is even less of a household name – unless you’re fans of the work of Guy Ritchie (Flemyng was in both “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”). His performance as Benjamin’s father stays with you. He’s utterly heartbreaking and worth the price of admission. Another small role is filled by the recent Oscar-winning Tilda Swinton as Benjamin’s one-time lover, Elizabeth Abbot. Swinton is pure bliss in her role, achieving an odd profundity.
Cate Blanchett is our greatest working actress, yet unfortunately doesn’t shine as well in this as she has in her previous roles. It takes a while to get used to her especially when she’s in her elderly phase make-up, and sounds a bit like Catherine O’Hara’s parody of dramatic performance in “For Your Consideration.” Eventually, she grows on you but for an actress with her talent it she is surprisingly always a bit too over-the-top. It’s hard to see an actress of her caliber in such an inadequate performance. It’s utterly exasperating.
The film’s cancer is the use of sound editing. At many times, it’s embarrassing. Fincher uses Blanchett’s voice as Elle Fanning plays the child era Daisy. We see this bright young cherub and then hear a grown woman’s voice. It’s awkward discontinuity at its worst and never leaves your memory through the whole film. Also perplexing is the film’s horrible make-up, which at many times is either too creepy or too over-the-top.
Still, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is undeniably sad, yet tender at its best moments which happen often enough. Alexandre Desplat’s score is a treasure and will have film music fans drooling for the wondrous soundtrack. The film has a miraculous ending, not in the sense of our hero’s outcome, but in that wonderful feeling that sometimes occurs at the movies: the lump in the throat. Fincher’s ending is exceptional, some of the best work on the screen this year. It’s certainly a strong showing for actors, who show that there are still new places to take performance especially in the style of character acting. Whether you’re aging backwards or forwards, you’re guaranteed to like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”