Review

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Director    David Fincher
Starring    Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng
Release    25 DEC (US) 6 FEB (UK)    Certificate 12A
5 stars

Andy

6th February 2009

David Fincher + Brad Pitt = fantastic. That's pretty much a given; Fincher brings out the best in Pitt, who is cursed with the affliction of being an actually very good actor trapped in a pretty body (George Clooney being another example). The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that nobody has read but pretends they have now the film is being given the Golden Showers.

Plot? Benjamin Button is born an 80-something year-old man who is the size of a newborn. He has cataracts, arthritis and all the other things that go with advanced age, except he's only a day old. His mother dies in childbirth and his father panics and dumps him at a random address and runs into the night. Benjamin is adopted by Queenie, the nurse and caretaker of an old people's home, who accepts him unconditionally and raises him as her own. He becomes friendly with local girl Daisy, because as she points out, "You're not like the other old people," and she becomes the love of his life. Button grows older/younger and experiences life, love, loss, pain and regret.

That's the bare-bones plot, but this film raises so many questions and problems with Button's condition that I fear this film will make no money at the box office and become of "those" films like The Shawshank Redemption that finds an audience later on word of mouth. It's being marketed as a love story, one for the ladies. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Make no mistake, there is love and passion. But Button's ageing presents huge obstacles.

You fall for a girl you've known since you were a kid, you played together and as time passed you realised you were in love with her. Except as she grows older, you grow younger. You will both meet in the middle for a while, but you can never grow old together and share life's problems. As Daisy points out when they are both middle-aged, "Would you still love me when I was old and saggy?" to which Benjamin replies, "Would you still love me if I were young and had acne? Or if I end up wetting the bed?"

It's an immensely sad film but one that never resorts to cheap manipulation techniques - Fincher is far too detached and clinical a director for that to be allowed. You invest in the story because you care about the characters and cannot help but project your own fears and wishes onto Benjamin and Daisy. This is where Fincher and Pitt excel. Fincher's style allows you to invest in the story, yet treats you like an adult and allows you to form your own opinions as opposed to, say, Spielberg, who uses mawkish sympathy and John Williams to tell you exactly what feel and when. Fincher is absolutely at the top of his game here, whether it's his technical prowess or his stunning work with the makeup/CGI teams to make Pitt appear old. Not just wrinkly, mind, but tiny and hobbling. You will not for the life of you work out how they did it.

Everybody brings their A-game to this film, be it short but note-perfect work from Jason Flemyng or the powerhouse work of Taraji P. Henson as Queenie (rightly Oscar nominated). But this is Pitt's film through and through. He is required to do more than just stand around with his shirt off looking wistful and moody, and as proven with his previous work with Fincher, Brad Pitt is a damn good actor when given something more to do than look pretty (the Jesse James film with the long-ass title is another example). He is in turns funny, heartbreaking, sad and confused and at no point does it feel like he's winking and practising his Oscar speech (Tom Hanks, we're looking at you).

He plays old very well and the initial chuckles at seeing a geriatric playing with toy soldiers are soon forgotten - you don't sit there thinking "this is just Brad Pitt in make-up" any more than you do with the other characters as they grow old around the same time Pitt enters his pin-up era - where Fincher does indulge in perfume-advert perfect visuals of a semi-naked Pitt hunking about. But this serves a purpose rather than getting seats wet - Button is amazed that he is turning into a gorgeous younger man and stands in front of the mirror flexing. If you were 50yrs old and you looked like Brad Pitt, you'd walk about in your pants a lot with a woman too, don't lie.

Everything in The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button has a purpose and a point; there is no flab or room for saccharine. Even with the framing device of an old and dying Daisy in hospital and her daughter trying to make up for lost time together, there is a lack of "I love you Mom" moments or any scenes that have the potential to be sugary tugs at your heart. Fincher deserves applause for refusing time and time again to bow to the clichť.

Absent father issues? Spielberg has built a career from that and poured enough sugar into your brain to give you eye-diabetes. Fincher steadfastly will not go down that road and instead offers up adult reactions to adult situations. What he serves up is a warning about wasting time and moments that you have with people you love, because before you know it? Gone. Take that as a warning - this film will reduce you to choking back hetero man-tears and pretending you have a cough whilst your woman will sob openly and suddenly want a cuddle. Which you can surf into a cop-a-feel moment if you haven't been dating for a while and lost the urge to do that.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is being sold as a chick-flick "I wuv woo" smooch fest where you get to see Brad and Cate being lovely and kissy-kissy and awwwww. What you get is an incredibly fucking sad study of slowly having to let those you love walk away, because there is no chance in hell you can ever be together and live happily ever after. But in a good way.

More:  Drama  Fantasy
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