“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” represents a richly satisfying serving of deep-dish Hollywood storytelling. This odd, epic tale of a man who ages backwards is presented in an impeccable classical manner, every detail tended to with fastidious devotion. An example of the most advanced technology placed entirely at the service of story and character, this significant change-of-pace from director David Fincher poses some daunting marketing challenges, even with Brad Pitt atop the cast. Strong critical support will be needed to swell interest in this absorbing, even moving, but emotionally cool film, which is simultaneously accessible and distinctive enough to catch on with a large public if luck and the zeitgeist are with it.
Due to its history-spanning structure, blank-page title character and technical sleight of hand, the film “Benjamin Button” most recalls is “Forrest Gump,” but in a good way; it is entirely possible to dislike the 1994 smash and embrace this one, which resists every opportunity for mawkish and sentimental displays. Still, it is no coincidence that Eric Roth wrote both of them, and Roth — who followed many other writers, including credited co-story author Robin Swicord, in trying to crack the long-gestating project — has veered far from the specifics of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story.
Fitzgerald’s original was inspired by a Mark Twain observation to the effect that it’s a pity the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end. Yarn began in 1860 Baltimore, had Benjamin, born looking like a 70-year-old man, raised by his father, marrying and having a son, starring for Harvard in football and ending his life by attending kindergarten with his own grandson.
Using precious little of the story save the central aging conceit, Roth’s version ranges from World War I into the 21st century and creatively uses New Orleans as its base, with sojourns to distant corners of the globe. Scripter could have chosen to make the central figure a more exceptional, active character — a doer of great things, or an intellectual with an acute awareness of his unique condition. Instead, Benjamin is a passive sort to whom things happen, a trait by no means an impediment to audience involvement. Gump was like that, as were Dr. Zhivago and others.
Fincher spends 13 minutes short of three hours telling this unique man’s life story, and the time goes by easily, with no sense of dawdling, waste or indulgence. The film evinces a sure hand that maintains narrative confidence, steadiness of tone and a mature awareness of the temporal nature of life’s opportunities and the fleeting quality of happiness.
Death pervades the film and Benjamin’s life, but in a matter-of-fact, rather than depressing way; if you’re raised among oldsters in a retirement home, death is never a stranger. Framing story is set in a modern hospital room, where the fading Daisy (a recognizable Cate Blanchett under heavy makeup) has her 40ish daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) read to her from the diary of her late dear friend Benjamin.
Benjamin is born of the armistice and is lovingly raised by a black attendant, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), at the rest home. An establishment awash in the gentility of the Old South, the place is ideal for a child who, with his bald pate, cataracts, deficient hearing and need for a wheelchair, fits right in with the other occupants.
When he’s 12 and looks about 70, Benjamin meets a resident’s lovely red-haired granddaughter, Daisy. No doubt named in homage to the immortal heroine of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Daisy will zig-zag in and out of his life from then on and eventually embody his emotional touchstone.
With a solicitous stranger he doesn’t know is actually his father (Jason Flemyng), as well as with an African pygmy bon vivant (Rampai Mohadi), Benjamin gets a taste of the outside world, including the pleasures of the flesh at a bordello. He also befriends hard-drinking tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris) and, in time-honored tradition for a young man, goes to sea. In one of the film’s most bewitching interludes, Benjamin, who has begun to realize he’s looking younger, has an affair in Murmansk with the sophisticated Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), from whom he learns what it is to be loved and desired. Pic’s action highlight is a startling nocturnal encounter between the tug and a Nazi U-boat that has just sunk a troop transport.
Safely back in New Orleans after the war, Benjamin becomes reacquainted with Daisy, now a rising dancer and unashamed sensualist who comes on a little strong for her old friend. But after his father dies, leaving him his button factory and entire estate, Benjamin follows Daisy to New York, where he sees her dancing the ballet in “Carousel,” then to Paris, only to continue being rejected by the headstrong young woman even after she suffers a terrible tragedy detailed in a suspense montage that by itself reps a dazzling display of directorial savoir faire.
Much of the film’s romantic and philosophical posture hinges on Benjamin and Daisy getting together at the right time, and they do so in an entirely satisfying way; by the time of consummation, with Brad Pitt now in full physical glory and Blanchett at her womanly peak, they — and the audience — are more than ready for it. But their passion is all the more pointedly ephemeral due to the consciousness of being headed in opposite physical directions. The necessary acceptance of this fact produces a sincerely and genuinely earned sense of melancholy about the transitive nature of love and life.
The extent to which Fincher and his vast team of collaborators have succeeded in their storytelling can be seen by the fact that one comes out of the film thinking about the characters and narrative intent, not the admittedly amazing aging effects and other technical achievements. Truly, the visions of Benjamin and other central characters at different ages are sights to behold; baby Ben resembling a little E.T., Blanchett appearing a convincing 23. But truly the most unnerving image is Pitt looking more or less the way he did in “Thelma and Louise,” or at least half the age of the man now playing the character. Clearly anything is possible.
In all his physical manifestations, Benjamin is a reactor, not a perpetrator, and Pitt inhabits the role genially, gently and sympathetically. Blanchett’s Daisy is the more volatile and moody one and, after bluntly revealing the selfish impetuousness of Daisy’s youthful self, the thesp fully registers both the passion and insecurity of the mature woman.
Henson, as Benjamin’s surrogate mother, and Swinton as the calculating adulteress, are wonderful, and Harris and Mohadi etch particularly colorful supporting turns as two of Benjamin’s rowdier cohorts.
Every scene is crammed with detail, from the nooks and crannies of the settings created by production designer Donald Graham Burt and the century-bridging costumes by Jacqueline West to the faces of the main cast and countless extras. Alexandre Desplat’s score provides lovely and unobtrusive dramatic support. Fincher and lenser Claudio Miranda shoot mostly in deep focus images to maximize the information in every frame, and the depth of the blacks they achieve shooting on digital is extraordinary.
Still, for what is designed as a rich tapestry, the picture maintains a slightly remote feel. No matter the power of the image of an old but young-looking Benjamin, slumped over a piano and depressed about his fading memory and life; it is possible that the picture might have been warmer and more emotionally accessible had it been shot on film. It has been argued that digital is a cold medium and celluloid a hot one and a case, however speculative, could be made that a story such as “Benjamin Button,” with its desired cumulative emotional impact, should be shot and screened on film to be fully realized. These are intangibles, but nor are they imaginary factors; what technology gives, it can also take away.