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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Redefines “Coming of Age”

By Judy Thorburn

Every now and then a film comes along about the life of an unusual, memorable character who overcomes adversity.  I’m not referring to a story based on a real life person, but one that is a fictional tale to inspire and uplift the human spirit.  Case in point would be the 1994 Oscar winning film Forrest Gump.

This year the defining film is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which, as it so happens, was written by Eric Roth, the same person who wrote Forrest Gump. Both films are similar in the story structure and tone and as examples of a beautiful, sweeping epic that touches the soul. But, there is something so different and unique that pervades TCCOBB’s storyline.   It is a mystical element, a connection to a clock invented by a grieving father (Elias Koteas) who lost his son as soldier during World War I, which adds a particular sense of wonder and conjures up questions about our connection to everything, regardless of time constraints.

Eric’s Roth’s screen adaptation, loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitgerald, is the tale of a man who is born old and grows younger as his life progresses.  In other words, he physically ages backwards from an old man to baby.  In telling the story, director David Fincher (what a change from his well executed but very violent dramas, Zodiac, Se7en) sets a measured, gently flowing pace that draws you in, guided by stellar performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as well as a great supporting cast.

The story begins in 2005 on the eve of Hurricane Katrina as an elderly woman named Daisy, (Cate Blanchett in the most believable, undetectable “old” makeup I have ever seen) lies dying in a hospital room with her daughter (Julia Ormond) at her bedside.  Daisy has an old diary written by Benjamin Button that she asks her daughter to read. And so the story of Benjamin Button is conveyed, told in flashbacks that go back to his birthplace of New Orleans in the year 1918 at the end of World War 1.   Soon after his wife dies in childbirth, Thomas Buttons (Jason Flemyng) horrified by his newborn son’s freaky looking appearance, abandons the baby on the doorsteps of an old folks home where he is taken in by the kind, sweet tempered African American proprietor Queenie (a wonderful, Oscar worthy turn by Taraji P. Henson) who names him Benjamin and giving in to her maternal instincts, raises him as her own with unconditional love. Oddly enough, as a young child in an old man’s body with similar infirmities as the elderly residents, Benjamin fits right into his surrounding environment. But, as others become more frail and die, Benjamin’s fragile, wheelchair bound body becomes healthier and stronger and his mind clearer and more curious.  While he still looks like an old man and she is just a child, Benjamin and Daisy first meet during one of her many visits to her grandmother. It is that initial connection which sets in motion an unusual love affair that will span a lifetime.

As time passes, Daisy grows up, moves to New York, becomes a renowned ballet dancer, while Ben turning 17 but looking to be in his 50’s, moves out on his own to experience a whole new world.  It’s a journey filled with indelible life learning adventures that encompasses taking a job on a tugboat, surviving the boat’s attack at Pearl Harbor, engaging in a bittersweet love affair with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat during his stay at a Russian hotel, and eventually, once again hooking up with Daisy after prior attempts failed to build a romantic connection.  The previous times obviously weren’t right, but at one decisive point the two meet in the middle when his and her ages cross paths. Unfortunately, nothing can stop the hands of time whether moving forward, or in this case, curiously backward. Knowing that, the heartbreaking outcome comes as no surprise.

Other than as a baby, Brad Pitt plays Benjamin with the assistance of incredible and seamless CGI effects that fits his face onto the body of smaller actors and with remarkable age enhancing makeup and prosthetics that are the best ever to be seen on the big screen.  While many times special effects act as a distraction, here they are absolutely convincing and a spectacular visual achievement.

Only for a short time, when Benjamin approaches the same age as the actor in real life, do we get to see Pitt in all his handsome glory.  Pitt literally disappears into this role, assuming a soft spoken and passive demeanor as the character who learns about life, taking it all in from those he encounters.  This part is so different than anything he has ever done before and I applaud the actor for this understated, subdued performance that speaks volumes.  Cate (reteaming with Pitt, her Babel costar) on the other hand, has never looked more radiant in her portrayal as the more outwardly emotional Daisy from her teens through adulthood.

The Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful, richly told, skillfully crafted fantasy tale and tender love story, complete with gorgeous cinematography, set design and special effects, brilliant direction, and superb performances.  But, what moved me the most was the film’s powerful message about making the most out the precious time we are given in life because nothing lasts, no matter how much we try to transcend the inevitable constraints of time.

I expect this film to garner several Academy Award nominations, including those for acting, technical aspects and as best picture. It surely will make my top ten list for 2008.  I wouldn’t be surprised if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button becomes a classic; a memorable piece of cinema that, unlike human beings, can withstand the test of time.

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