Thursday, December 25, 2008

Benjamin Button examines time on earth, becomes timeless film

There is a scene towards the beginning of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which a submarine emerges from the sea with the grace and other-worldliness of a giant squid's tentacles, that establishes the film as a visual masterwork to be applauded and studied for years to come. Every frame is so carefully imagined, every set piece placed so precise that, in fact, nothing feels precise at all. This is a world we are watching, full of splendor and life, and it's our own. Through the eyes of a man aging backwards, viewers are shown life in motion, always moving somewhere, the destination never certain. Inspired by a criminally short, and deliciously imaginative, story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eric Roth provides an accessible screenplay for Fincher to work with. Roth is a staple of modern-day Big Hollywood, scribing such epics as Forrest Gump and Robert De Niro's under-appreciated The Good Shepherd. Roth writes economically, but on the largest of scales, giving his directors much room to maneuver with a sizeable budget.

Fincher makes the most of the free space. Taking the Hollywood Film by storm and bending the rules (he did the same for the crime thriller with Seven), the visual director is given characters worth observing and actors worthy to portray them. Brad Pitt gives yet another dynamic performance, comfortably wading into Benjamin Button and transforming into our protagonist as he himself transforms, from a man of 80 to a baby on his way out. Pitt has become comfortable in his own skin it seems, and this confidence shines through in his acing. In the last three years, the actor has delived the three best performances of his career (in Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Button). An Oscar nomination is deserved here without question.

However, Pitt pales slightly in comparison to Cate Blanchett, who once again re-establishes herself as the greatest actress of her generation. With every movement of her face, Blanchett captures the viewer, accenting both her beauty and her conflict in a moment's twitch or twinge or blink. The central love between Pitt and Blancheet blossoms without so many as several lines throughout the film. This is Bogart and Bacall or Tracy and Hepburn: it just feels right.

And while Roth's screenplay feels a bit shallow at times (some lines, like the repeated "Can't see what's coming," sound like they were written solely to be recited viewers), their presentation on screen comes off more nostalgic than distractive, paying homage to Old Hollywood past and the grandiose lines that fueled the classics; think "Here's looking at you kid." Chalk this success up thanks to Fincher's direction and editor Angus Wall's quick cutting and fast-paced visual eye. The pacing is reminescent to Forrest Gump, only this movie does not feel as forced. Where Gump seemed to rely on gimmicks and mannerisms (and one hell of a performance by Tom Hanks), Button relies on characters with regrets and desires, not just stories.

The political backdrop of Fincher's film is also much more fine and subtle than Gump, and for this Roth should be commended. Setting the film's frame story during the beginnings of Hurricane Katrina is as effective as it is insightful and timely, speaking for a forgotten city at a time when compassion is a difficult trait to afford.

There are laughs to be had when viewers become tired by the long running time (2 hours and 45 minutes), well-paced throughout by the running narrative of an old man recalling the various times he has been struck by lightning. But as the old man, played by veteran Ted Manson, says of the lightning: "God let me know how lucky I was to be alive." Button reminds us of this luck, and how to appreciate what life has to offer. Although Pitt's Benjamin laments the fact that "nothing lasts," I happen to agree with the response Blanchett's Daisy gives: "some things last." The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of those things.

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