Last night, I attended the first L.A. audience screening (meaning not a test screening) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (out Dec. 25), where Brad Pitt and director David Fincher did Q & A afterwards. I haven’t seen a review anywhere else because the movie was only recently finished (Fincher said there are still 3 shots he’d like to fix) so this might be the first.
Before I get to the movie’s review and fun facts learned from Pitt and Fincher in person (who practically put on a comedy routine), I want to mention that in the next couple weeks, I’ll be going to screenings of some hotly anticipated Oscar bait like Australia, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, so make sure you bookmark this page for all the scoop.
I also have 3 beautiful, glossy Benjamin Button programs that were handed out at the screening. They’re 6 pages long and not available anywhere else. They contain color photographs plus Q & A and testimonials from Pitt, Fincher, Cate Blanchett, screenwriter Eric Roth and producer Kathleen Marshall. On Nov. 16, I’ll randomly select 3 people from my subscribers list to receive one so if you’d like a program, subscribe now!
OK, on to the movie review. It’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story but it’s been expanded quite a bit because the epic film runs about 2:45 long. It opens in New Orleans in a hospital as Katrina is approaching. Fincher uses the framing device of Blanchett’s character, Daisy, on her death bed to tell Benjamin’s story. Julia Ormond (wasted in a thankless role) plays her daughter Caroline, who reads from her mother’s diary, taking us into flashbacks about a baby born in New Orleans in 1918 looking like an 80-year-old man (an older woman takes one look at the baby and says, “He looks just like my ex-husband!”). We soon find out this baby is not near death, as a doctor suspects, but will in fact get younger as he ages. This might have something to do with a newly installed clock in the local train station that tells time backwards. The clock was created by the mysterious Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), who wanted time to go backwards so that his son, killed in World War I, might come back to him.
The baby’s father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), who actually owns a button factory, is so horrified by his son’s wrinkled visage, he first intends to throw him in a river but then changes his mind and leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home, where caretaker Queenie (the spirited Taraji P. Henson) finds him and takes him in. Queenie, who’d been told she couldn’t have children, isn’t fazed by the baby’s condition (ossified bones, cataract-filled eyes), calling him “a miracle, just not the kind one hopes to see.”
Queenie raises the boy in the nursing home, where Benjamin has no idea at first that he’s not old like everyone else. Here, he meets red-headed Daisy for the first time as a 5-year-old (visiting her grandmother) and is instantly infatuated. They embark on a friendship that evolves into a love that lasts for the rest of their lives despite their impossible circumstances. Before they can meet again as lovers in mid-life, Benjamin finds work on a tugboat and heads off to see the world, while Daisy becomes a star ballet dancer, performing in Paris and with the Bolshoi in Russia.
When they finally come together as lovers, it’s with the knowledge it can’t last. “Will you still love me when my skin is old and sagging?” she asks. “Will you still love me when I have acne?” he retorts. Complications and separations ensue until they come together again one last time at the end of their lives in drastically different forms.
Pitt, buried in old-man makeup for most of the movie (we only get to see him as golden boy for about 15 minutes), gives a nice, subtle performance full of wonder and longing. When the 7-year-old Benjamin crawls into a makeshift tent with 5-year-old Daisy to share secrets, the scene could’ve been creepy because after all, it’s a grown man under some sheets with a little girl. It’s a testament to Pitt’s skill, then, that we’re able to overlook his old-man exterior to see the innocence in Benjamin’s eyes and realize it’s really just two kids playing.
Having said that, I wasn’t as moved by this film as I wanted to be. This was number one on my list of must-see holiday movies and I so wanted to be blown away but it just didn’t happen. This movie is a very ambitious effort—it looks gorgeous, there are some groundbreaking special effects and the rest of the cast also do excellent work but it’s the kind of movie you respect more than love. It’s like a piece of art that you look at and say, “It’s pretty,” but don’t necessarily want to bring home.
I think the problem for me was the stakes weren’t high enough for Benjamin and there was no sense of urgency throughout most of his life. Except for his father’s initial reaction, everyone pretty much accepts Benjamin upon first meeting. He doesn’t go to school where other kids beat up on him, he gets a demanding job as crew member on a tugboat while looking like a fragile old man and the captain barely questions it, and Daisy knows right away he’s not as old as he looks when she first meets him. In order for the film to be more compelling, Benjamin needs more obstacles to overcome. Even when he sees some action in World War II, we don’t fear for his safety because we already know the film will probably take us to the end of his life to fully explore his extraordinary condition. (I haven’t read the short story so if any of you have, please leave a comment and tell me how this differs from Fitzgerald’s version.)
I’m surprised there aren’t more riveting moments in this movie, considering it’s directed by Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en). I was attracted to it after hearing that Fincher would take the unsentimental route. Well, it’s unsentimental almost to the point of passivity. This isn’t to say it’s boring—it isn’t. Many times, it’s even laugh-out-loud funny (watch for an old man repeatedly telling people he’s been hit by lightning seven times). There are visually interesting aspects—the film looks like old stock at times, where you can see the pops and scratches like on an old newsreel. The color is sometimes muted, sometimes overly saturated, like the unnatural tones of a black and white movie that’s been colorized. The crash of the tugboat against a German submarine is breathtaking, Titanic-like but on a much smaller scale. The score by Alexandre Desplat (Oscar-nominated for The Queen but I thought his score for The Painted Veil was more enchanting) is lovely as usual.
All this amounts to a lot of value for your money, an especially attractive quality this holiday season. I just wish I could’ve been more moved by this character’s life story instead of being left feeling like a casual observer.
Call me only mildly Curious.
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this post, where I’ll report what Pitt and Fincher shared during the Q & A.