Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Review

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Movies aren’t measured in minutes, except when they feel like hours

That above statement is a bit harsh and doesn’t reflect my complete viewing experience of Benjamin Button. I just couldn’t figure out a good line to sum my problems with specific points in the film's epic run time. Remember in Saving Private Ryan where there were those two scenes at the beginning and the very end that showed old Ryan feeling guilty for the loss of Captain Miller? Many people thought they were heavy handed and tacked on, but I didn’t mind them because they didn’t intrude on everything else in between. This same plot tool is also used in Benjamin Button, but unlike Ryan these scenes are spread out at various points in the story, which is what keeps the film from reaching a higher level of acclaim.

It is present day and we meet Daisy, who is on her deathbed, the day of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daisy’s daughter, Caroline, finds a dairy in her mother’s bag and begins to read it, seeing that the story is about a man named Benjamin Button who ages backwards. Benjamin was abandoned as an infant by his father after his mother died in childbirth. He is brought up by a black woman, Queenie, who runs a senior citizen home where Benjamin fits in with the older crowd. It is there that he meets a young Daisy, who is visiting her grandmother, and the two quickly become friends. As Benjamin grows younger, he encounters many memorable events until he is eventually reunited with an older Daisy.


Much has been said about the film's groundbreaking special effects that help to age Benjamin and Daisy over the years, and they don’t disappoint. The older Button looks really convincing and is believable looking as an aged Brad Pitt. Benjamin is a much different character than what Pitt normally plays, even without the makeup assistance. Pitt plays him more as a quiet observer than someone who actively engages in a situation, which helps to make us wonder how Button views the world from his altered perspective, and makes him a fascinating and interesting character to watch. Cate Blanchett is also excellent as Daisy, who must deal with the issue of aging forward while Ben gets younger everyday. Pitt and Blanchett both makes us feel sorry for them as their relationship becomes more fractured and distant as the film goes on. The supporting cast is also very good, with Tilda Swinton and Taraji Henson being the most notable as one of Benjamin’s other affairs and Queenie respectively. 

Like Pitt, Benjamin Button is an unusual film for David Fincher to direct. His previous films were very dark in their tones, moods, and themes, contrasting with the lightness that has to be used here. But Button isn’t overly sentimental like Forrest Gump, also written by Eric Roth, to which it bears some similarities to. The movie is emotionally strong, but without using many cliché scenes that make it feel sappy. Fincher’s visual prowess is still very much evident here though, conjuring up many beautiful and dense images that stay in your mind including a few showing two characters watching the sun slowly rise.


The films long running time at about 160 minutes is both an issue and non-issue, depending on the type of scenes. If you happen to be on the scenes following Benjamin’s life, then the movie moves at a nice pace that slowly unravels his entire story from birth to death. But whenever it flash forwards back to the scenes at the hospital with Caroline and old Daisy, the story and pacing grind to a dead stop. These scenes don’t have the same emotional or visual power that the others have, and would probably have been better left on the cutting room floor or maybe in an extended director’s cut. The fact that they continually pop up makes their existence seem that much more useless. So my problem with the film's length is not the length itself, but for the few scenes that bog down the pace.

Despite the issues I had with its story structure, I found Benjamin Button to be a mostly excellent film when it hit the right notes. The makeup effects are outstanding, but don’t overshadow the great performances by Pitt and Blanchett, and Fincher continues his streak of directing great movies.


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