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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is the film I’ve been waiting for.

Steph and I took advantage of our vacation to see a LOT of the big Oscar-hopeful films that have been released in the past few weeks.  As usual, there has been a crazy end-of-the-year rush of “serious” films, many of which won’t get a wide release for several weeks yet.  While we enjoyed almost all of the films we saw (and I’ll be writing about them all in the coming days), none of them really stood out.  Until David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The film is magnificent.  It is emotional and haunting, and it is epic and transporting in all the ways that a truly special film is.  Spanning the years (almost a century) between the last day of World War I and the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the life story of Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who is born as a baby with all the features of an extremely aged man, and who proceeds to live his life aging backwards.  But while Benjamin Button gets the film’s title all to himself, the movie is also every bit the story of his true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).  Pitt and Blanchett both turn in powerful, subtle performances.  Benjamin Button is a very quiet film — there are not a lot of acting histrionics to be found.  With the help of amazing makeup and absolutely seamless CGI work, Pitt and Blanchett breathe poignant life into these two people through all the many years of their lives, as one gets older and the other gets younger.  This is a story about loss, about loneliness, and about death, and it is made staggeringly powerful by the way that Pitt and Blanchett capture the audience with their performances.

Over the course of Benjamin’s curious life, he meets quite a few other interesting folks, embodied by some wonderful actors.  Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s sweet and powerful adoptive mother, Queenie.  Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (who was the best thing about the cancelled-too-soon sci-fi series The 4400, and good god do I love his name) plays Tizzy, the man who, for too short a while, becomes a father figure for Benjamin.  Jared Harris plays another father figure, the charismatic, often-drunk Captain Mike, who helps the young Benjamin take his first steps out into the wider world.  Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) plays Thomas Button, Benjamin’s biological father, bringing complexity and depth too this man who we (and Benjamin) should hate but can’t quite do so.  Then there’s Tilda Swinton, who has been getting a lot of press, and rightly so, for her performance as Elizabeth Abbott, a lost woman who Benjamin encounters at just the right moment in both of their lives.  These are just a few of the names in this large, terrific ensemble, every one of whom is note-perfect.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the CGI done to help bring this story to life, visually.  Benjamin Button transformes gradually from a contorted, elderly man to a small baby, and Daisy grows from a little girl to an old woman.  (That’s not to mention the aging of all the other people in Benjamin’s life over the course of the film.)  We shouldn’t ignore the actors who lent their skills to portraying Benjamin and Daisy and the extremes of their lives, such as Elle Fanning who plays Daisy at age 7.  But to all of the other craftsmen involved in this visual effects spectacular — and although there are no dinosaurs, mutants, or space-ships, make no mistake that this is an incredible visual effects achievement — I say bravo.  

Most of all, I must extend my praise to director David Fincher.  With every film of his I become more of a fan.  (I enjoyed Alien 3, Seven, and Fight Club, and I thought his last film, Zodiac, was spectacular.)  What makes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button such a success, in my mind, is its tone.  In all places, Fincher demonstrates a deft touch with the material.  There are some fun nods to the different time-periods as Benjamin’s life unfolds, but it’s never over-done, never becoming a “hey look isn’t this neat” distraction as happens in movies like, dare I say it, Forrest Gump.  (I know people love that movie but it’s not one I’ve ever been able to connect with.)  Benjamin Button is very emotional and heart-wrenching, but Fincher never crosses the line into schmaltz.  This makes the ultimate heartbreak of the film even more powerful.  The emotion is EARNED — the audience doesn’t feel manipulated by over-written speeches or over-wrought music.  There were an astonishing number of moments during the film that I felt very deeply, and the over-all result is a tender, moving film that I look forward to revisiting.  This film is epic in its ambition, right from the clever twist on the studio logos that open the film straight through to its very closing moments.  It is haunting, and although it’s already been well over a week since I saw it, it’s film that I just can’t seem to shake.

Of all the Oscar-bait movies flooding the multiplexes this season, this is the one to see.

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