ARIZONA REPORTER




Movie Reviews - 22/01

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON


By Harvey Karten (AZR) - George Bernard Shaw said that "Youth is wasted on the young," while Mark Twain added, "It's a pity the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end." How true. And how fortunate that a couple of quotes like these can prod a writer to wrack his brain to conjure up a tale of vivid imagination.

Paramount Pictures (domestic)/ Warner Bros. (foreign)
Reviewed for Arizona Reporter by Harvey Karten
Grade: B
Directed by: David Fincher
Written By: Eric Roth, from his story and Robin Swicord's based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story (available on the Internet)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning, Jason Flemyng, Julia Osmond, Elias Koteas, Taraji P. Henson



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A fifteen-year-old is at his peak physically, yet because of the influence of hormones and his thinking with a part of the body other than his brain, he makes so many costly mistakes that later on in life he'll regret. When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in 1921—a tale which can be read online at http://www.readbookonline.net/read/690/10628/ as it's only 16 pages long—he posited a person who is born at the age of seventy (eighty in the movie version scripted by Eric Roth), giving him an opportunity to gain wisdom and, most important, to be world's only person who looks forward to getting on in years. By contrast most of us in the real world are tempted to look backward at the glory days of our youth.

The thing about the title character, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is that while he is born in 1918 on Armistice Day at the age of eighty, getting younger every year until he's a baby, he does not particularly use the wisdom he gains by from being in the company of activist pals who think he's a mature man. He's as passive as Forrest Gump, another character created by Eric Roth. In a film that skirts sentimentality without becoming sucked into soap-opera melodrama, Benjamin acts the part of a blank slate accepting offers of adventure from the people he meets.

With the aid of incredibly competent computer generated imagnery that gives us a Brad Pitt looking much shorter and convincingly decades older; with production design that take us to New Orleans, Paris and Benares; with stellar performances particularly from Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng and especially Taraji P. Henson in the role of the woman who adopts Benjamin when his horrified dad left the newborn on the steps of a rest home—"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is expected to sweep Oscar nominations in as many as ten categories. The story, largely a series of poignant vignettes most of which are evocative of life's dreams and disappointments and the workings of fate, captures moviegoers' attention even more for the narrative than for the technology.

If only the film were less distant, less emotionally as detached as its title character, it would be a shoo-in for best picture. We've come to expect marathons on our year-end prestige films, and at 167 minutes, this is not for an ADD audience who'd feel more comfortable with "Transporter 3."

The tale finds Benjamin enter the world of New Orleans at the age of eighty, his mother dying in childbirth, his father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng), hustling the infant onto the steps of a rest home where he is retrieved by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and, in a few years as a small, old man, he fits right in to the rocking-chair culture. Burdened with cataracts, hard of hearing, and confined to a wheelchair, he is cured of his lameness by an evangelical preacher, is soon seen twelve years later, looking seventy, when he meets red-haired pre-teen, Daisy, who will figure strongly in years to come. Taken into the sea by a tugboat skipper, Mike (Jared Harris), which is seen as a growing-up ritual that would please Eugene O'Neill, he stops off in Murmansk to enjoy an affair with the wife of a British trader, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), encounters a battle with a German sub during World War 2, returns to New Orleans where he again meets Daisy—a prima ballerina whom he follows to New York to watch her dance in a couple of the picture's best moments: a performance to the music of "Carousel." Benjamin and Daisy's romance is on-again, off-again, and on-again, forming the nucleus of the story.

All is framed by Cate Blanchett's character, now a dying woman made up to look a hundred years older, as Benjamin's diary is read to her by her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond).

On the negative side: in addition to the remoteness of the material, photographer Claudio Miranda shoots the scenes in digital rather than using the warmer stock of actual film. In short, not the masterpiece that some critics will label it, but still a respectful epic story that should attract an intelligent audience on Christmas Day and thereafter.

Rated PG-13. 167 minutes. © 2008 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

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