Monday, January 5, 2009

"I Was Thinking How Nothing Ever Stays The Same...And What A Shame That Is"

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of those movies that causes the audience to forget that magic isn't real. It's told mostly from the viewpoint of a nearly magical creature called Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man who was born with the wrinkled and arthritic body of a man in his 80s and grew physically younger as he aged. It's based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that I had never read which is probably a good thing as the movie must be radically different and I'd most likely be spending most of this review bitching about how the scene where Button is looking across the lake at a far off light was left out of the movie.

The movie begins at the end, which is fitting for this story. We see a very old woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) preparing to die in a hospital in 2005 New Orleans. There's a hurricane called Katrina coming to wash everything away, but they don't know that yet. She thinks she has time to tell her daughter (Julia Ormond) stories that will die with her if they are not told now. The first is a tale of a blind clockmaker who made a grand, ornate clock that ran backwards. At the clock's unveiling, people think the clockmaker either incompetent or insane until he tells them how his son had recently died in World War I and that this clock was for him and all the boys who had perished there and that maybe time itself could now go backwards and his son could come home. Yeah, that sounds stupid and schmaltzy and it's a reflection of the artistry of the film and the direction of David Fincher that it worked instead as a moving piece of filmmaking that set the tone for the rest of the movie.

The second story is much longer and starts when Daisy has her daughter pull a book out of one of her bags. It's a book that Daisy herself has never read although she knows a great deal of the story already. It's the diary of a man named Benjamin Button.

Benjamin was born to wealthy parents named Thomas and Caroline Button on the night World War I ended. When Caroline died in childbirth, as happened with disturbing frequency to even the wealthiest of people back then, Thomas Button looked at his son and looked in horror at a tiny old man. His fear combined with his grief and he grabbed the child with the intent of tossing him in the river but instead leaves him on the doorstep of a black woman named Queenie who worked as a caretaker in an old folks homes. That turned out to be the best place to raise a boy like Benjamin and he had what was probably the happiest childhood he could have had. He also meets the granddaughter of one of the residents there, a girl named Daisy, and forms a bond with her that will last throughout his life, even when they're apart.

Benjamin's life is populated by an eclectic and entertaining cast of characters, most of whom Benjamin outlives. Two of the most memorable ones are Captain Mike and Elizabeth Abbot. Captain Mike (Jared Harris) is the man who who employs Benjamin to work on his tugboat. Mike is almost the stereotype of the drunken, boisterous sailor but you discover things like a love of art that is reflected in the way he has tattooed himself and his love of country that brings him to volunteer the services of his boat during World War II. Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a British spy, is the only woman besides Daisy that Benjamin would ever say that he loved. None of these people would have related to Benjamin the way they did if they had thought they were dealing with a boy and not the old man he appeared to be. That's one of the upsides of his condition.

The downside is that it keeps him from being with Daisy, for most of his life anyway. Daisy grows up to be a dancer as famous and talented as she is self-absorbed. Daisy finds out from the diary that she was always in Benjamin's thoughts and that he stayed near her when she was injured in Paris even after she sent him away. Eventually, Daisy grows older and Benjamin grows younger and they meet up in what turns out to be a mutual middle age. It won't last, of course. Nothing does in Benjamin's world, or in our own for that matter. They grow apart again, she to face the ravages of age and he to face the ravages of youth.

Brad Pitt was a good choice to play Benjamin Button (three other actors also play him as he's growing up). Pitt is a glamorous movie star who's also able to bring an Everyman quality to the larger-than-life characters he plays (another good example of this is when he played Jesse James). The movie itself itself is an episodic character study of a magical man and how he changed, and was changed by, the people he met. It's a story of humor, whimsy, sadness and tragedy and, at almost, three hours, seemed too short.

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