Friday, October 01, 2010

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Originally Written and Posted at on 12/25/08

The short story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button told the story of a man born with a body of an aging elderly. When he grows, his has the mind of whatever age he's in while he starts to look younger. The story is one of the most intriguing tales by Fitzgerald that an adaptation for a film project took years to create with several screenwriters including Charlie Kaufman and directors like Ron Howard and Gary Ross attached to the project. When the project finally found a director that will stick to the project, it seemed that it would finally be made though it would be in the hands of David Fincher. The man behind such provocative films like Se7en, The Game, and Fight Club. Yet, 2007's Zodiac about the Zodiac killings of the late 1960s marked a change of pace for Fincher that him the ideal director for the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story.

Directed by David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the story of a man born as an elderly as he's under the care of people in New Orleans during World War I. Over the years, he ages backwards while falling in love with the woman he met when she was just a child as he lives throughout the world. Screenplay by Eric Roth, who wrote the adapted screenplay for Forrest Gump, the film version is different from F. Scott Fitzgerald's version as the time frame is set from the time of World War I to August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina arrived. With an all-star cast that included longtime Fincher cohorts Brad Pitt and Elias Koteas plus Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Phyllis Somerville, Elle Fanning, Madisen Beaty, and Jason Flemyng. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a majestic film from David Fincher and company.

It's August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina is approaching New Orleans. An ailing woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is in a hospital bed with her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) by her side. Daisy tells Caroline a story about a man named Gateau, a blind clockmaker who created a clock that would run backwards that he unveiled one day to Teddy Roosevelt (Ed Metzger). Daisy asks Caroline to read a diary found in a suitcase which is about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). Caroline reads Button's diary as he was born the day World War I ended. Yet, Benjamin's mother (Joeanna Sayler) died due to complications of childbirth as her husband Thomas (Jason Flemyng) listened to her final words. Yet when he sees the baby, he's in shock over the baby's grotesque look only to take it away and leave in to outer staircases of a retirement home run by a woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

Queenie takes in the baby despite his grotesque nature as she names him Benjamin. With help from her boyfriend and caretaker Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), Benjamin was in the care of various elders where he learned about the world despite looking old. Around the time he was seven, Benjamin finally got to walk with help from a preacher (Lance E. Nichols) while a Creole man named Ngunda Oti (Rampai Mohadi) took him on a tour of New Orleans. Then one day, Benjamin meets a young girl named Daisy (Elle Fanning) whom he befriends as she's visiting her grandmother (Phyllis Somerville). After learning piano lessons from Mrs. Maple (Edith Ivey), he also gets a first-hand lesson about death. When he starts to look and feel younger despite his old appearance, Benjamin notices that Queenie is starting to focus on her own daughter.

At 17, Benjamin meets a tugboat captain named Mike (Jared Harris) who gives him a job as Benjamin becomes entranced by adventure. It would be around the same time Benjamin would meet Thomas Button though Thomas wouldn't reveal his true identity yet. When Daisy (Madisen Beaty) visits again, she is amazed at the world Benjamin is starting to live in while she has dreams of being a ballerina. When Benjamin decides to leave home to work with Mike as a member of a tugboat crew, he writes Daisy many letters until his stop at Russia where he meets the wife of a British diplomat named Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton). The two first engage in late night conversations that proved to be fulfilling as Abbott once tried to swim across oceans. Yet, their conversations would lead into a secret affair only to end quickly as she leaves Russia.

When World War II begins for the U.S., Mike and his crew decide to serve for the Navy with Benjamin joining along. Returning home to New Orleans once the war ended, Queenie is glad to see him as he continued to work at the retirement home. When Daisy makes a visit, Benjamin is amazed at the new world and career she's in though it overwhelms him. Another encounter with Thomas Button revealed some truths as Benjamin becomes confused only to learn more about Thomas. When Benjamin goes to New York City to surprise Daisy, she is surprised by his visit while Benjamin gets a closer look into her new world including a boyfriend named David (Adrian Armas). For Benjamin, it's too much as he leaves Daisy behind to venture a world of his own. When Daisy gets injured in Paris in an accident, Benjamin visits but Daisy feels ashamed.

After having some time of his own, Daisy re-enters Benjamin's life where the two finally reach the point where they're nearing the same age. Just as life was going blissful for them, Daisy's news that she's pregnant starts to worry Benjamin. After the birth of their child, Benjamin who is aware that he's about to become younger makes a fateful decision that would impact the life of Daisy and their child.

While F. Scott's Fitzgerald's original short story is set in a different time and place. The concept of a man aging backwards does create an idea that is unique. While screenwriter Eric Roth and story adapter Robin Swicord created some major changes that differentiates from the original short story. Their approach does work in setting the story in early 1900s New Orleans to New Orleans 2005 just Hurricane Katrina is set to approach. Yet, not everything works with Eric Roth's screenplay despite its unique structure, character study, and time frame. There's a couple of big flaws in the script though it often depends on what the audience wants. One is that the script is predictable in connecting the dots to what is about to happen and a few surprises that aren't really surprises. Yet, it depends on how the audience can handle that approach to the plot which isn't really Roth's fault or the story. It's just that it creates a lack of suspense or the fact that it isn't surprising.

The other major flaw with the script and story is its relation to Forrest Gump. There's many similarities to the famed novel by Winston Groom and its 1994 film adaptation that was scripted by Eric Roth. Both films have a protagonist embarking on adventures through their own simple, curious commentary. Both are chasing women who live in different worlds while having a maternal figure that can impact their lives. Both characters meet unique characters along the way while living through different eras. Yet unlike Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button isn't a simpleton. Instead, Button is someone who is more aware of the world despite the fact that he's reversely aging. Button is someone trying to live to the fullest where the story is helped by its structure. The first act is about Benjamin as a child, meeting Daisy, and setting on his own adventure. The second act is about his encounter with Elizabeth, the war, and coping with Daisy's new life.

Then there's the third act which begins with Daisy's return and the new life they live in. Once there's a child coming, the audience knows what's coming. Unlike the character of Jenny in Forrest Gump who lived recklessly through certain trends and without any clear goals.
The character of Daisy comes to full effect in the third act in how she's trying to cope with Benjamin becoming younger knowing what would happen. Yet, it's all told with voice-over narration by Benjamin as Daisy's daughter Caroline reads it. While the script had those flaws, Roth's approach in moving the story back and forth from Benjamin's time to the final moments of Daisy's life works in creating a subplot about Daisy's relationship with Caroline. Though audiences do know what's coming where despite its flaws. The script and story definitely is wonderful.

The direction of David Fincher is truly remarkable and majestic. Fincher takes new heights to his direction where he presents the film in various locations, notably New Orleans. When the film progresses, Fincher shows New Orleans in its beauty from the early 20th century to the time just before Hurricane Katrina was about to hit. Every time a certain period is shown, Fincher does it with a majestic style to keep the story moving forward while creating an atmosphere for the period. There's parts of the film where Fincher takes a certain period and adds grainy scratches to the camera work to emphasize the atmosphere of that time. Notably the story about Gateau and his clock which plays a very important part of the film.

Fincher's direction definitely takes him places he hadn't been to like romance and drama while creating a sense of excitement in the film's World War II scene where the tugboat known as Chelsea faces off against a submarine. While Fincher does use CGI-based visual effects for some parts of the film, it's done wisely without looking very fake in its emphasis to create atmosphere for a location or a certain era. In the dramatic approach, there is the idea of sentimentality but it's earned because of what is going to happen. Instead of having to draw out the ending, he creates a slow momentum in having the audience expect the outcome. The overall result of David Fincher's direction is truly spectacular and magical as it's definitely some of his best work as a director.

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda does an amazing job with the film's unique visuals with the sepia-like colors in some of the film's nighttime, interior settings to the period, colorful pallette of the exteriors in Paris, New York, and New Orleans. Miranda's work in the daytime exterior shots of New Orleans without much tints in the colors work in creating a period and atmosphere through Fincher's direction as it's definitely gorgeous in its look. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall do great work with the editing in the film's Gateau sequence in a scene play in rewind while using swift, smooth cuts on a commentary by Benjamin Button about how fate plays into the world. With its transition cuts, slow-motion cutting, and rewinds. The editing is definitely phenomenal. The visual effects work of Eric Barba and company is great in the creation of a few key moments in the scenes like the stormy sky in a shot at the Gulf beach, a shot of a rocket, a hummingbird, and other visual effects that work very effectively.

Production designer Donald Graham Burt along with set decorator Victor J. Zolfo and a team of art directors do an amazing job in the recreation of the period look of New Orleans through the ages. With its look of the homes that Benjamin visits and lives in to the duplex he and Daisy stays in. The art direction is phenomenal in every location and setting to create an atmosphere to the time. Costume designer Jacqueline West does a brilliant job with the look of the costumes including the ballet leotards and dresses that Cate Blanchett wears to the period clothes that everyone else wears throughout each time. Makeup artists Carla Brenholtz and Stacey Herbert do an amazing job in having the young model actors look like an older version of Brad Pitt while giving Pitt a look of an elderly where one had him look like Marlon Brando. Cate Blanchett's makeup by Elaine L. Offers work to show her aging look in the film's third act is also great in how her character ages while Benjamin looks younger.

Sound editor Ren Klyce does an excellent job in the sound work, notably the battle scene and sea sequences. The sound is also great in its location settings and atmosphere while in the 2005 scene. Carries a sense of foreboding of what is to come. The music of Alexandre Desplat is definitely rich and majestic with somber pieces, flourishing arrangements, and Desplat's tingling melodies. The score is definitely amazing without being heavy handed or playing up to its sentimentality as it's a lovely score. The soundtrack also includes various music pieces of a certain time period including a wonderful use of a live version of the Beatles' Twist And Shout performed on the Ed Sullivan show.

The casting by Laray Mayfield is phenomenal with a lot of small yet memorable characters that have scene-stealing moments like Ted Manson as a man who had been hit by lightning seven times, Paula Gray as an opera singer, Ed Metzger as Teddy Roosevelt, Donna DuPlantier as Gateau's wife, Jacob Tolano as Gateau's son, Joeanna Sayler as Benjamin's mother, Patrick Thomas O'Brien as a doctor, Lance E. Nichols as a preacher, Yasmine Abriel as a prostitute, Rus Blackwell as Daisy's husband in the third act, Adrian Armas as Daisy's boyfriend in the New York City scenes, and Edith Ivey as the woman who teaches Benjamin how to play piano though Benjamin doesn't remember her name. Other small roles from Don Creech, Joshua DesRoches, Christopher Maxwell, Richmond Arquette, Josh Stewart, and Myrton Running Wolf as crew members of the Chelsea tug boat stand out as well as Phyllis Somerville as Daisy's grandmother.

Rampai Mohadi is excellent in a standout role as a Creole man who introduces Benjamin to New Orleans while Mahershalalhashbaz Ali is very good as Tizzy, the caretaker who teaches Benjamin a few useful skills in life. In the role of the young versions of Daisy, Elle Fanning is wonderfully delightful to watch as the seven-year old Daisy while Madisen Beaty is also great as 10-year old Daisy. For the physical roles of Benjamin Button meshed with Brad Pitt's facial makeup and voice, Peter Donald Badalamenti II as the 10-year old Benjamin, Robert Towers as teenage Benjamin, and Tom Everett as the 17-year old Benjamin are excellent in their physicality. Child actors Spencer Daniels and Chandler Canterbury are also good in their respective roles as the 12-year old and 8-year old versions of Benjamin. Jason Flemyng is very good as Benjamin's father Thomas who is curious about the man who is son while dealing with the regrets he had over abandoning him. Elias Koteas is brilliant in his small role as Gateau, the clockmaker who creates a clock that runs backwards.

Julia Ormond is wonderful as Caroline, Daisy's daughter who reads the diary of Benjamin Button as she tries to contend with her mother's past and the things she never knew about. Jared Harris is delightful to watch as Captain Mike, the tattooed tugboat captain who brings adventures to Benjamin as Harris' performance is fun to watch. Tilda Swinton is great in a small yet brilliant supporting role as Elizabeth Abbott, a wife of a British diplomat who shares great conversations with him as she gives Benjamin a taste of real love. Taraji P. Henson is amazing in a real break-out performance as Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive mother who has some funny lines and comments as she brings a real true maternal quality to the role. While it's a character that could've been played as a cliche, Henson's fiery, charismatic performance is full of life and wit as it shows that she's definitely becoming a real actress after such stellar performances in Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and Kasi Lemmons' Talk to Me.

Cate Blanchett delivers a graceful yet wondrous performance as Daisy, the woman who becomes Benjamin's dear close friend and lover as she is amazed by his reversed aging while dealing with how out of place he is. Blanchett's beauty and exuberance is wonderful as she develops from a woman with dreams to a woman becoming content except when she has to deal with Benjamin's approach to childhood. It's a great performance from the Australian actress who continues to morph into any type of role without playing the same character twice. Finally, there's Brad Pitt in what has to be one of his best performances to date. Though it doesn't top the subtlety that he displayed in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a year earlier. Pitt sells the curiosity and wonderment of the title character while managing to make himself look young and dreamy while doing it with such maturity and restraint. It's a testament to what Brad Pitt can do as an actor where 10-15 years ago, many claim he couldn't act. The performance Pitt gives in this film proves that he's come along way from being a 90s heartthrob.

While not a perfect film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certainly one of the year's best films from David Fincher. Thanks to Eric Roth's unique screenplay, amazing technical work, and a brilliant cast led by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. It's definitely the right film to see during the holidays in its display of majestic imagery and atmosphere. Along with brilliant supporting work from Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, and Julia Ormond, it's a film that is dazzling to watch from start to finish as David Fincher takes a new maturity to his work as a director. In the end, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a magical film that is likely to sweep the viewer into a great, majestic journey from David Fincher.

© thevoid99 2010

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