LIFE ISN’T MEASURED IN MINUTES, BUT IN MOMENTS.
Whenever you watch a film by David Fincher, you expect a dark thriller that grabs you by the throat. That’s what built his career. But not this time. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a fleshed-out take on an F. Scott Fitzgerald novella that looks like something Tim Burton usually does, although he would probably have introduced more bizarre events and a gothic style, aided by a boisterous Danny Elfman score. Fincher’s film is gentler than that, a romantic and sweet story that for better or worse goes on for close to three hours.
As Hurricane Katrina closes in on New Orleans in 2005, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her deathbed in a hospital. She asks her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read aloud from a diary written by Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man Daisy once knew. Benjamin is born in 1918 on the day that World War I ends. His mother doesn’t survive the birth and the father (Jason Flemyng) is so horrified to learn that the boy is disfigured that he leaves him outside a retirement home. One of its workers, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), finds the child and adopts him. A doctor is amazed to find that the boy has the physique and looks of a man in his 80s. As Benjamin grows up in the retirement home, his health keeps improving; his body is actually growing younger. The first time he meets Daisy is when she’s five years old some time in the 1930s. A few years later Benjamin leaves Queenie and his home to work on a tugboat. He returns at the age of 27 (looking like he’s 55) and tries to reconnect with Daisy who now works as a dancer in New York, but is unsuccessful. Not until their ages “meet” are they able to have a romance that changes their lives.
Thoughtful references to chaos theory
It isn’t until the very last scenes when an 80-year-old Daisy is holding baby Benjamin in her arms that all of the weird aspects of the story touch you for real. The film is frequently engrossing and well acted, but the three hours has its unsurprising moments as well as a performance by Pitt that isn’t as gripping as the one Blanchett delivers. Still, the film is creatively shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who makes some scenes from the early 1900s look like color-tinted silent film footage. The battle between the sub and the tugboat, the film’s only action scene, is exciting and Tilda Swinton has a few memorable scenes as the wife of a diplomat who has a fling with Benjamin. Writer Eric Roth includes several thoughtful references to chaos theory, including the opening tale of the clockmaker who builds a clock that goes backwards; there’s always a chain of events explaining how something like Benjamin’s freakish condition can happen. Of course, the story is part of the wonderful Southern tradition of tall tales – choose to believe it or not, but the truth doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film are the special effects. The miracle of Benjamin’s “aging” are the results of a remarkable union between make-up effects and a camera system called Contour that increases the possibilities of post-production manipulation of faces. For Pitt, watching himself turn 20 again on-screen must have brought new meaning to the term movie magic.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 2008-U.S. 166 min. Color. Produced by Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay: Eric Roth. Short Story: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cinematography: Claudio Miranda. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Production Design: Donald Graham Burt. Cast: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy), Taraji P. Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng… Mahershala Ali.
Trivia: Tom Cruise and John Travolta were allegedly considered for the lead; Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard for directing duties.
Oscars: Best Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup. BAFTA: Best Production Design, Special Visual Effects.
Last word: “What we decided to do was cast actors to play Benjamin at different heights, and got them to wear blue socks on their heads and lopped their heads off and put Brad’s head on them, which is easier than it sounds. We needed to have a workflow or factory assembly-line way to do that, because we had 350 shots that we had to do. So by using a lot of different techniques available from videogames and animation, we were able to figure out a way that Brad could perform the face, and we could capture his eyes and how his mouth moved, expressly frame for frame, and then puppeteer a sculpture that we could scan into a computer, a virtual version of his head, so that we could take masks away from his face and he could ‘puppet’ himself. And that’s what we ended up doing.” (Fincher, The Guardian)