The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Daisy dances her way through life.

(Paramount) Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Elle Fanning. Directed by David Fincher

One of the constants of our lives is time. It follows a preset course in our perception; we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die. There is a certain comfort in knowing how that progression will go. However, what if time wasn’t a constant for us all?

Benjamin Button (Pitt), like a modern-day Merlin, doesn’t age; he youthens. He was born an old man in turn of the century New Orleans; his father Thomas (Flemyng), overwhelmed by the death of his wife in childbirth and the double whammy of a peculiar child to boot, leaves him at a home for the aged, to be cared for by Queenie (Henson), a woman with a gigantic heart.

From there on we watch the events of the 20th century through Benjamin’s eyes; also his love affairs with the wife of a Russian diplomat (Swinton) and the love of his life, Daisy (Blanchett) with whom he had more or less grown up with in the home (she was a regular visitor to her grandmother). Daisy becomes a dancer who…well, that would be telling.

Fincher, one of the more innovative directors of our generation, has crafted a movie with astonishing special effects. Not every special effect has to be of aliens and spaceships, y’know. Here, the aging and de-aging of Pitt is mostly done as computer generated imagery, and quite frankly is done so seamlessly that you never believe for a second that it isn’t organic.

There are also some incredible performances here. Pitt does some of the best work of his career as Benjamin, displaying a child-like innocence that is coupled with deep sadness. Button knows his affliction will make him an outsider in life, and so that is what he becomes, someone separate from life, essentially observing but not taking part in so much.

Blanchett is one of the premiere actresses working today, and this is yet another outstanding performance for her resume (she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her work, but she easily could have). I’m not sure if Blanchett ever took ballet as a child, but she moves with the lithe grace of a dancer.

Some critics, including a few that I respect very much, complained that the movie wasn’t true to itself and that it was essentially empty at its core. There is some evidence that the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that inspired the script was written essentially as an exercise but I think that it does make for a fascinating what-if.

What we are dealing with here is the ultimate outsider, someone who violated the laws of nature and the consequences of that violation (even if it is involuntary) are devastating. Benjamin Button knows what his affliction costs him; he will not receive the things in life he desires most. That would make anyone a little bitter. Still, he gains a unique perspective not because of any intellectual difference but simply because of the way others treat him.

The framing sequences take place during Katrina and involve Daisy’s daughter (Ormond) reading to her dying mother from Benjamin’s journal and a backwards running clock created by an eccentric clockmaker (Koteas) in 19th century New Orleans.

There are some amusing bits, including one concerning a man who is struck by lightning multiple times, and some poignant scenes as well – such as Daisy caring for the now-infant Benjamin at the end of his life. Parallels to the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease are certainly at the forefront in my mind as I watch these sequences.

I will say this for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; it is like no other movie I’ve ever seen before and am unlikely to again. In that sense, this is worth seeing just because of its uniqueness; the character of Benjamin Button will stay with you long after the movie is over.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing special effects and powerful performances from Blanchett and Pitt (the best work of his career to date) make this a must-see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little gimmicky in places, with actual historic figures interacting with Benjamin a la Forrest Gump.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality here as well as a sprinkling of bad language. There are a couple of violent scenes that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the action in the Fitzgerald story took place in Baltimore, the locale for the movie was switched to New Orleans in order to take advantage of tax benefits offered by the Louisiana Film Commission in the wake of Katrina; also the Daisy character was named Hildegarde Moncrief in the original story; her name was switched in honor of The Great Gatsby.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While essentially a making-of featurette, the one on the Criterion collection version is so thorough and exhaustive it literally blows every other making-of featurette on every other DVD or Blu-Ray right out of the water. Entitled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, it divides the material into three trimesters and a birth and includes nearly three hours of material on nearly every aspect of the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.9M on a $150M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Away From Her


Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

(Lionsgate) Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Alberta Watson, Grace Lynn Kung, Stacey LaBerge. Directed by Sarah Polley.

One of the horrors of aging is Alzheimer’s disease. The effect of the disease on the afflicted person is devastating, but the effect on the loved ones can be even more harsh.

Grant Anderson (Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Christie) have a good life. They’ve retired to a beautiful cabin in rural Ontario and live comfortably, surrounded by the accumulations of a long life together. However, there are some disturbing signs of change coming into their lives; Fiona is growing increasingly more forgetful, and has started to do some odd things, as when they are putting dishes away after a meal and she puts the frying pan into the freezer.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the practical Fiona has no desire to subject Grant to the agony of caring for her while she slowly and inevitably deteriorates. She makes the unilateral decision to check out a local nursing home. At first upset at his wife for acting on her own, he bows to her strong will and sensibility and drives her to the facility.

Once there, they find a pleasant environment with a caring staff but Grant balks when the facility’s director (Watson) informs him that he won’t be allowed to see his wife for 30 days while she adjusts to her new residence. He begs Fiona to reconsider, but she is firm and with a final sweet goodbye, sends him away. When he returns, the changes in her are pronounced. She’s developed a relationship with Aubrey (Murphy), a mute patient whom she cares for as a nurse for a patient. Whether the relationship is more than that isn’t clear; Grant wasn’t faithful to her early in their marriage and he wonders if she’s taking revenge for that. Some days she seems to recognize him, others it’s clear she has no clue who he is. Devastated, Grant takes advice from a sympathetic nurse (Thomson) and Aubrey’s wife (Dukakis), a practical, plain-spoken woman who sees the inevitable but can’t quite bring herself to let go.

Director Polley, best known as an actress in such films as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the “John Adams” miniseries as well as an impressive roster of indie movies, proves to be a director of enormous potential. She brings a deft touch to a subject matter that could easily become maudlin in less capable hands. Her gaze is unflinching and honest but never feels forced. The Andersons are robust and handsome in their age, but they aren’t archetypes; they’re real people with flaws and no clear direction of what to do. That’s a tribute to the original Alice Munro short story it was adapted from and also to Polley’s writing for which she was Oscar-nominated.

Most of the movie takes place in the winter, but Polley resists the temptation to make the film overcast and gloomy. Instead, nearly everything takes place in bright winter sunlight reflecting off the snow that sparkles like diamonds. The winter metaphor works for that reason without becoming cliché.

Christie and Pinsent are in every scene, either separately or together, and they both deliver outstanding performances. While Christie was recognized with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win, I found Pinsent’s performance more riveting as he captures the agony and desperation of a good man seeing the love of his life deteriorate before his eyes.

Despite the acclaim and Oscar buzz, this Canadian production didn’t receive widespread distribution here in the States. Nevertheless this is a movie worth seeking out not just for the subject matter, which may be off-putting for those with phobias about aging and the issues that the elderly face, but also for the on-screen performances which are as compelling as any you’ll see in a small film like this. You may also want to rent it if for no other reason, to mark the occasion of the emergence of a great director who is bound to release some wonderful movies as her career progresses.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by the entire cast, particularly the two leads. Beautiful snow-covered exteriors in rural Ontario. An impressive script that never stoops to emotional manipulation or maudlin clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subject matter may be too age-centric for some. Some of the subplots are merely touched upon without satisfying resolutions.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for kids wondering why grandpa is so forgetful.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lionsgate paid $750,000 for the rights to distribute this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing notable on the American release; however Canadian readers might look into the 2-Disc special edition for a short film from Polley entitled I Shout Love as well as additional film commentary from Christie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Strayed (Les Egares)