A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 216 – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – October 2nd, 2010

This is a slow movie. I will not lie. It doesn’t pass by in a frenzy. It doesn’t pick you up and make you run with it. It is over two and a half hours long. Almost three hours long. And in some ways it feels it. This is the story of lives. Not just one life, but several, and they need space to spread out and show themselves. It’s not a bad thing that it’s long, but I think one should be prepared. It is a slow movie, drawing out its moments in quiet ways in the way that life and time do.

We begin with a dying elderly woman and a story about a clockmaker who made a clock that would go backwards, in hopes that the boys who died in the first world war might some day return. The clock is symbolic, of course. This is the story of a man who ages backwards, after all. The elderly woman is Daisy, and she is in a hospital, kept company by her daughter, Caroline. And Caroline is reading Daisy a journal that tells the story of the life of Benjamin Button, born a wizened old man on the day World War One ended and abandoned by his father on the steps of a boarding house for the elderly only to grow younger and younger the more years passed by. It’s the story of Benjamin’s life, but since Benjamin and Daisy fell in love, it is also the story of Daisy’s life, if only in pieces. It’s the story of Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie, and of all of the people he met as he grew up in an old folks’ home and left to travel the world. It’s the story of an old man in a boy’s body at the end. It is the story of love and how things don’t last and how the choices we make change not just our lives but the lives we touch.

There’s a very quiet mood to this movie. It starts with the boarding house and Benjamin growing up unable to run and play and do the things most children do. He’s more like the residents of the house, needing help to walk, to eat, to bathe. It starts so still and slow and soft, which really sets the tone for the rest of the movie. There are loud bits, with church revivals and war and music, but what stood out for me were all the times when the quiet seeped in and the movie made me take a few seconds or minutes and just look at Benjamin’s life. That’s why the movie is nearly three hours long. It takes its time.

Really, the whole movie is about time. Maybe that’s why I don’t mind the length or that you feel every minute. I wanted to feel every minute. When Benjamin ends up in Russia, stuck in a hotel for a few weeks, having a midnight affair with the wife of a diplomat and spy, there are long times for them, spent in the hotel lobby, and the kitchen, tasting new foods, talking, being wrapped up in each other. Those aren’t moments to pass by in a montage. When the tugboat Benjamin works on gets commandeered by the US Navy in WWII, those are some moments to spend time on, and likewise when he gets home and Queenie welcomes him back. I want to see that welcome home. I want it to have the time it deserves. When his father finds him and tells him the truth and Benjamin carries him out to a dock to sit and watch the sun rise? I want every second of that sunrise. When he and Daisy travel to the Florida Keys to spend some time swimming and sailing and being in love, that time should linger. The movie should pause there.

Without the gimmick it would be similar to Forrest Gump but without the right-place-right-time schtick that Gump uses to place him in all sorts of famous moments. The times and places Benjamin finds himself in aren’t photo moments captured in famous magazines. But with the gimmick there’s a touch of bittersweetness through the beginning. You watch as he grows younger, stronger, unlike the people he grew up surrounded by. And it seems almost a good thing. Until you really think about what it will mean. We all lose people. We all go through life with other people around us and people die or go away. It happens. But this story is very similar to ones that deal with the problems of immortality. Benjamin is a man who doesn’t quite fit into the world, and he never will. The older he gets, the younger he seems, and that sets him apart. Regardless of what he wants.

This movie would not be what it is without several key things: The painstaking attention to time period is one, even with a few flaws that didn’t matter so much to me. The mood was right. And then there are the performances. Of course Brad Pitt is important to it all. He carries much of the movie. But his stand-ins for the extremes in his ages are also fantastic even in the short times they’re on screen. And then there is Cate Blanchett as Daisy, who also has to grow up in the movie. Taraji P. Henson is absolutely amazing as Queenie, and I loved Tilda Swinton as the frustrated and elegant Elizabeth Abbott. I also want to mention Jason Flemyng, who only has a few scenes as Benjamin’s father, but manages to make him such a sad figure in that short time. And while Julia Ormond doesn’t have a whole lot to work with as Daisy’s daughter Caroline, who reads her the journal in the present day, what she has she does well with. It is a movie full of performances that pass through time and show the course of people’s lives. Everyone in the movie seems to have gotten on board with the pace of the movie, which is why it all works so well, so I must also commend David Fincher for the direction that put everything in place.

I cried through the last half hour of this movie. Oh, I cried in the middle too, more than once. I cried for Mrs. Maple and I cried for Queenie and I cried for Elizabeth Abbott, the woman in the Russian hotel who seems at the time to want so much more out of life and not know how to manage it. I cried when the tugboat went to war. And I cried when the inevitability of Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship becomes so painfully obvious. And then I didn’t stop crying. I think the ending will likely resonate with anyone who’s lost someone to a slow, debilitating disease, but all I could think about were my mother’s parents, both of whom we lost slowly, one to strokes, one to a very gradual dementia. It is horrible. It is a terrible painful aching thing to bear witness to. And the movie lingers on that too.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

October 2, 2010

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I have long labored under a misconception regarding this movie. For some reason I thought it was directed by Robert Zemeckis. As we watched this I even started writing my review with that assumption in my mind. I had to double-check IMDB when Amanda said that it was, in fact, David Fincher who directed this and not Zemeckis at all. Comparisons between this movie and Forrest Gump are inevitable.

This is an epic tale told in flashback of an extraordinary individual’s life. In this case it’s the story of Benjamin Button, who is born an old man with cataracts wrinkles and arthritis. As the movie progresses he grown younger and younger while everybody else in his life grows older. The details of the plot are not important. There is love and death and war and birth. But that’s not so much what the movie is about, really.

The movie is about creating a mood. It’s about life, and the people we encounter as we live it. It’s about death and the many ways it can come for us, and how we all have to face it sometime. It’s a tender, touching, peculiar movie about living and about loss.

It is told in flashbacks as a woman reads from a journal that her dying mother has. Her mother is in a hospital in New Orleans on the eve of Katrina. (I kept waiting for this to be relevant to the plot of the movie, but it’s not really related.) The daughter reads to her on her death bed from the journal of Benjamin Button which tells of his life and loves (most notably the woman’s mother Daisy.) It’s a magical kind of fairy story. This is re-enforced by the tale the mother tells at the start of the movie about a blind clockmaker and a clock which runs backward. There is a sort of mythical feel to the whole movie as Benjamin lives out his life.

I’m not altogether sure how to review it, truth be told. I was definitely moved by the film. It has a message about accepting that which is inevitable and about not allowing yourself to be afraid to live whatever life you want to in the mean time.

The performances of the many people playing Benjamin Button are fantastic. Particularly considering the heavy make-up they have to work under for much of the film. I’d say I enjoyed most the tale of Benjamin growing up in New Orleans in the years between World War I and World War II. In this stage of the movie Benjamin is played by Peter Badalmenti, and Peter gets to create much of the character that Brad Pitt brings forward into the rest of the film. His depiction of Benjamin as a curious child trapped in the body of an ancient hobbling old man is wonderful fun. He manages, through the make-up, to give a real feel for the longings in Benjamin and the awkwardness of his teenage years (made more awkward by his aged appearance.)

Much thanks has to be given to the make-up team for making the whole evolution of Benjamin’s life believable. The transition from Peter Badalamenti to Brad Pitt is almost seamless since Brad adopts so much of Peter’s attitude and vocal mannerism, and the make up actually makes it hard to tell exactly which actor is playing the part at that stage. Peter plays Benjamin as more of a rapscallion and Brad as more a lonely and cautious man both older and younger than his years, but both are perfect for the time in Benjamin’s life they’re portraying.

It seems natural that Brad Pitt (who seems to aging in reverse himself) should be cast as Benjamin Button during his adult years. And the performance of Cate Blanchette as his love Daisy is wonderful. She has to capture the feel of a woman growing older in the normal cours of time as her love grows younger and younger. It’s the little glimpses of frustration with her aging body that capture me most about her performance. Also noteworthy is the always wonderful Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, wife of an English diplomat in Russia with whom Benjamin has an affair. She’s given some great speeches about the kinds of regrets that a person can have in middle age about lost opportunities. (Lost opportunities and missed moments are a theme in the movie.) I also love the closure the movie provides her character in the end.

I have a few minor complaints about the movie. I never really bought the motivation for one major plot point later in the movie for example. I feel like some kind of traumatic event was needed to spur Benjamin to a somewhat radical choice he took, but it felt unjustified as it appeared in the film. I also felt the movie lacked closure. Sure, it’s the story of Benjamin Button over all else, but I kind of want to know what happened to Daisy and her daughter, especially since so much is made over the course of the film of the approach of Katrina to the hospital where their action is taking place.

But those are little things, really. I feel that the movie is bigger than those little details like plot and closure. It accomplishes very well what it sets out to do, which is to make you look at your own life and treasure it. It could very well have been a Robert Zemeckis film were he not now so absorbed in his work with the experimental leading edge of 3-D digital film making. Aside from one little segment in the middle of the movie (where Benjamin tells a story within the story about how Daisy’s career as a dancer came to an end) and the tale of the blind clock-maker there is no moment that screamed David Fincher about the film. He directs in a very artful, reserved and tender way here. It’s not about cool visual tricks; the movie is about the emotion and the feel. It’s a magical little tale with a gentle heart.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment