The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. David Fincher
viewed: 05/18/09

A curious choice of film to watch on my 40th birthday, a movie about a man aging backwards, filled with themes of life, death, aging and love.  If I wasn’t thinking enough about such things already, it was effective to be hammered over the head with them for nearly 3 hours by director David Fincher and company.  Life, death, decrepitude.  I dig it.  I live it.

Adapted, at least conceptually, from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and translated into a sprawling epic, the movie is one of those that shoots high for Oscar recognition, heart-string yanking, and super profundity.  A work of art.  An experience.

And it’s not terrible, though it’s overlong and heavy-handed.  Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt carry the film alongside some stunningly effective special effects portraying Pitt in youthful oldness and oldful youthness, though more the former than the latter.  I kept looking at the shots, trying to see where they melded images together, but it’s freakishly well-done.  That I was thinking of the effects perhaps shows that I wasn’t so drawn into the story, but you know it’s pretty weird having Pitt’s face grafted onto the body of either an old man or a child or a person with disabilities.

From director Fincher of Zodiac (2007), Panic Room (2002), Fight Club (1999), and Se7en (1995), this is much more epic and romantic territory.  Fincher has a great eye, casts some very aesthetically pleasing images, visions of old New Orleans, New York, Paris, and more cityscapes, digitally produced to evoke living, breathing visions of the past.  It’s a effective tool when it works, a way of envisioning a bygone version of places with which we are familiar.  And this film isn’t the worst of its kind, though it does bang you over the head with its messages about the nature of life, fate, and mortality.  Subtlty is not a keystroke that gets struck too often.  The hummingbird metaphor was the most annoying of these.  And there are plot points that one could drive a fleet of Mack trucks through, such as, why the daughter of Blanchett had no idea that her mother had been a dancer despite the fact that she ran a dance studio most of her life or that she had no idea about the existence of Benjamin despite the fact that her mother spent the last six or so years of his life caring for him and living with him.

There is also some tribute to Hurricane Katrina, setting the storytelling during the onset of the storm.  Not sure of the intended significance there.  But the film also seems to elude any issues of racism to a point at which it seems like denial.  Benjamin grows up raised by an African-American woman, who cares for aging white people.  He sits at the back of the bus with an Congolese Pygmy who has been living in a zoo (based on the real life Ota Benga) but really this issue, so predominant and ever-present in the South at the time of most of the story seems fairly omitted.

But in the end, the film has on its weaker side a real Forrest Gump (1994) quality to it.  Not that this is the story of a mentally handicapped American, but rather that it too splays out its grandeur across the 20th Century with keynote shorthand images of each age, from rockets flying into space, the Beatles on television, the “a day which will live in infamy” speech.  It’s like crib notes to tell you when things are supposed to be happening, but also ways of tying the “experience” to that of which people have lived, sharing the journey across the 20th Century’s major moments, this whole span of life.  It’s a bit cheap, I’d say.

Ah well, it’s all just another three hours of your life that you won’t get back.  You might as well suckle what joy you can out of it.

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