‘Benjamin Button’ falls short
December 26, 2008
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is designed to evoke cozy, if melancholy, feelings about life, love and the passage of time. I found its state-of-the-art technical aspects more engaging.
Running with the basic concept from a short story F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1921, screenwriter Eric Roth models his scenario after one of his earlier hits, “Forrest Gump.” Spanning even more decades of 20th-century history but with less attention paid to cultural change, “Benjamin Button” is an epic-scale tall tale featuring a passive protagonist with an impossible physical condition. The two films also boast the best digital effects of their respective eras, integrated seamlessly into a humanistic story, which the filmmakers hope will make you cry.
If you can believe it, that is.
Ben is born in New Orleans on Armistice Day, 1918, the size of a normal baby but with a body that looks and functions like that of a very old man. His mother dies in childbirth, and his appalled, wealthy father leaves the aged infant on the steps of a retirement home. He’s taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an African-American woman with a heart of gold who works there, and all the old folks think the baby is just the cutest little thing.
Miraculously, Ben not only survives, but as time goes by and his body becomes bigger, his appearance and physiology grow younger and healthier. Various stages of this wrinkled but thoroughly convincing child-size old man were achieved by running star Brad Pitt’s expressions into a database, which computer animators then tweaked until they looked exponentially more human than any virtual person has before. This CG “mask” was then applied to small stuntmen’s faces, and the illusion of a single little old person is not only astonishing but a beguiling pleasure to watch.
As are most of Ben’s life-learning adventures in the movie’s first hour. While some of it is standard coming-of-age business ” first love, first job, first whorehouse, etc. ” there are also surprising and unpredictable moments galore. Gloriously shot in digital high-def and persuasively adorned with period detail, “Benjamin Button” doesn’t evoke nostalgia so much as it shows us how mysteriously appealing those times looked through this strange creature’s eyes.
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Live Pitt takes over the role when, on the eve of our entry into World War II, the tugboat Ben works on is lend-leased to the Russian arctic port of Murmansk. There he has an affair with the sophisticated and sad wife of a British diplomat (Tilda Swinton, perfectly cast) and survives a really well-staged fight with a German U-boat.
Once the war ends, though, focus narrows on Ben’s relationship with that childhood love, Daisy, now a free spirit and modern dancer played by Cate Blanchett. They go through a relatively brief period of bliss, but both know their relationship is doomed by the fact that he’ll get younger as she grows older.
The movie doesn’t exactly get schmaltzy at this point, but it becomes less interesting. Director David Fincher, who has proven well-attuned to psycho thrillers (“Se7en,” “Fight Club”) and films about guys obsessed with psychos (“Zodiac”), does his best to be as tender and sensitive as this product increasingly requires. But the first act’s thrill of great, innovative filmmaking is gone by the third. Fincher amuses himself, if not us, by putting the ever-prettier Pitt in iconic poses from the eras through which Ben wanders wide-eyed: Brando-ish motorcycle jockeying for the 1950s, Kennedy-esque cool and hippie vagabond a decade or so later.
And while he’s voguing along, Ben more or less serenely accepts his condition, but never appears to have questions about it. Neither does anybody else, including a doctor or two who examine him early on.
It makes you wonder what a director who really understood this story’s implications (David Cronenberg came to my mind) might have done with it ” and the real interpersonal issues even Fitzgerald addressed in the story he considered an inconsequential lark.
But the goal here was to make a faux-thoughtful, life-affirming entertainment, and Fincher and company have more or less done that. Funny thing, though, that the liveliest and most exhilarating factor in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is the synthetic little guy.
If only the real Brad Pitt acted as expressively.