Moriarty Has Seen THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON!!
Published at: Dec. 7, 2008, 6:28 p.m. CST by headgeek
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
A simple truth, but one that I think most of us do our best to keep at bay most of the time. We struggle to achieve various goals and joys in our lives, and when they finally arrive, when we finally accomplish them, we want them to endure. We want to maintain our state of bliss as long as we can. But in the back of our minds, we always know that there is no such thing as permanence. There is no such thing, for people, as forever. We are impermanent by design. We are always racing the clock. We can fight as much as we want, but the truth remains: nothing lasts.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is one of the most piercing, beautiful, eccentric studio movies in recent memory, an exquisitely crafted film about memory, love, opportunity, and the passage of time. Technical wizardry and emotional delicacy combine to create an experience that is, for lack of a better word, magic. Set during the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, BUTTON tells an epic-scale story that is actually an intimate emotional journey, unusual and unlike any other film I can name.
And, yes, that includes FORREST GUMP. Thanks to the involvement of Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth, you will hear a lot of comparisons to GUMP, but don’t believe it. This is the anti-GUMP, and therein likes the darkness that I think director David Fincher must have found so appealing. Whatever the attraction was, this director, so renowned for his cold, clinical eye and his detached intellectual cool, has responded to this material in the only way he could: with the whole of his previously only-rumored heart.
It’s a very simple concept, and if you’ve ever read the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, there’s not a lot to it. It’s very simply a doodle about a baby born as an old man who lives his whole life in reverse. There’s a marriage in there, but it’s not really played as a love story, and there’s no real weight to anything that happens in the story. It’s more like Fitzgerald was intrigued and wanted to play with the idea a bit.
In the film, things are different from the very start. Whereas Fitzgerald imagined Benjamin being born as an actual 80 year old man, full-sized and able to speak right away, the film takes a stranger approach. Benjamin is a baby, but his body shows all the wear and tear of advanced age, including arthritis, cataracts, and a completely lack of elasticity to the skin. He’s got a disturbing little-old-man face, but he’s very much a baby in every other way. Robin Swicord, the original screenwriter on the film, and Eric Roth have both worked hard to find a way to ground this fantastic idea and make it play as something approaching a reality we recognize. As a result, in the film, Benjamin’s external age and his internal age are completely at odds, while in the short story, they were in synch. The moment Benjamin’s father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) sees the baby, he snaps. After all, his wife is laying in bed, hemorrhaging and sure to die, and the result is this twisted, diseased-looking thing. He grabs the baby and runs out into the streets, where all of New Orleans is celebrating the end of World War I. He’s looking for a place to dump this creature, and at the last minute, he relents. He shoves a few grubby dollars into the blanket and leaves it on the back steps of an old age home, where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) finds the baby. She decides she’s going to raise him as her own, figuring that due to all the problems with his health, that won’t be a very long process. And with this one act of cruelty and an equal act of kindness, Benjamin Button finds his place in the world and starts his very strange journey.
The screenplay also invents a framing device featuring Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). This is the material that takes place present-day, as the Gulf Coast prepares for the impact of Katrina. I’ve already read some people freaking out about this choice, but it seems to me to be a powerful thematic comment on a location that obviously affected everyone who shot this film there. If you know New Orleans at all and have any affinity for it, the current iteration of the city has to be a bit of a heartbreak for you. I visited New Orleans many times as a younger, wilder man, and a part of me never wants to go back now. I’m afraid to see what the hurricane did to it. But that’s exactly why it makes sense to me as a choice for the framing story. Nothing lasts, not even cities that seem to be part of the fabric of our country.
Daisy’s dying, and it’s a matter of hours, most likely. There’s a sense that she and Caroline have been estranged, but she’s there now. And thanks to a collection of letters and photos and postcards and other items and a diary that her mother has, Caroline pieces together a story that completely changes her perception of her mother and, indeed, of herself. This entire section of the film is played between Blanchett in extreme old-age makeup by Greg Cannom that is on par with the best of Dick Smith’s old age work and Ormond, who has been largely absent from film lately. Blanchett is fading away the entire time, dying incrementally, her morphine dosage slowly being turned up. And she says all she wants is to hear her daughter’s voice. All this unspoken stuff is playing out between them, things unsaid and unresolved, and Ormond starts reading this story. But it’s not just the sound of her voice Blanchett’s after. There’s something she’s telling Ormond as well... her own story. As a kid, you know your parent as your parent, but it’s fairly rare that we really get to learn who they are as people. I think it’s one of the biggest barriers you can get over in your relationship, the idea that these people existed before you were around, that they had whole lives that didn’t involve you. It’s unfathomable for a kid, and that process can sometimes bring you closer, and sometimes it can drive you apart. I think it’s something worth doing though, and watching Ormond react as she’s hit with all of these new ideas about who her mother was is quite moving.
In fact, in that way, I think BUTTON is more akin to BIG FISH than it is to FORREST GUMP. I don’t really like either of those films, though, so I’m surprised this one hit me as dead-center as it did. This is nowhere near as “magical realism” as either of those movies. You’re asked to accept one gigantic conceit, the idea of Benjamin aging backwards, and then everything else is just played as reality. There’s nothing “high concept” about the sequences in the film, and it’s almost unfair to call any of them set pieces in any traditional blockbuster sense. Benjamin’s life is a lot of things over the years, goes through a lot of stages. Each of those encounters changes or shapes him, and none of them explode as high drama or melodrama. Instead, things have these slow-motion effects, detonations that aren’t felt immediately.
Take his detour with Elizabeth Abbott, for example. The great Tilda Swinton shows up for a protracted dalliance in a hotel in Russia, when she crosses paths with a freshly-wounded Benjamin, just back from the romantic front and smarting from his failure to connect. Elizabeth is older, in her 40s, and Benjamin looks like a man even older than her. But he’s a young man in terms of experience, and he’s never really courted a woman. What takes place between them is played with remarkable subtlety, and when it ends, it simply ends. They don’t hammer home any larger significance... it’s just part of who he is during his life. The defining relationship for Benjamin in the film is Daisy, of course. This is a love story, a doomed one, but then again... aren’t they all? Fincher’s interested in the ticking clock built into even the first kiss, the first date, the first glance across a room. You always know, no matter what, that there’s an end date coming. You may have five hours together, five years, fifty years, but again... nothing lasts. When Daisy and Benjamin meet the first time, they’re both children, emotionally speaking, and Daisy recognizes something in him, some kindred spirit. They bond, but he looks like a little old man and she’s just a little girl, so there’s no chance for them. The next time they meet, in one of the film’s most quietly painful sequences, he looks to be in his 50s, and he’s grown up quickly because of that sense of otherness that plagues him. She’s not quite 20 at this point, beautiful and ripe and young, and completely immature. She’s willing to be with him, but maturity-wise, they’re not ready to connect, and the encounter ends badly. It’s only later, when the two of them reach something like the same age, after both of them have felt loss and sorrow and hurt, that they’re able to approach each other as equals, as adults, with open eyes and open hearts. One of the things I love about the film is how there is no human villain, no bad guy introduced to steal Daisy’s affections or to create some artificial tension in their relationship. Time is enough of a villain, hungry, unrelenting. And when they have a child and Benjamin realizes that he’s not going to be able to be a real parent, time finally wins. He leaves again, setting off on the last leg of his journey alone. I’ve read some criticism that Benjamin is a passive lead character, but I’m not buying it. He’s not a big loud aggressive movie lead the way we’re used to, but neither is he just a feather on the wind like GUMP. Benjamin deals with what life brings him, and he lives with those choices, no matter how hard it is.
The film has quite a bit to say about the way fate brings us together or tears us apart, and it’s not about stupid movie coincidence. I’ve thought about the way entire sections of our lives are built off of one decision, one moment where things fell together a particular way, and how any number of things could have prevented that from happening. I’ve been working with my writing partner now for 22 years, and the series of choices that put the two of us in one room for the very first time required his parents and my parents and our teachers and various employers of our parents to all do certain things a certain way, or we never would have met. If that had been the case, who knows where I’d be today, or what I’d be doing? Same thing with my wife... I met her at a party. What if I’d skipped out on it, like I did with so many other parties? What if I’d left before she arrived? What if I’d never met the person who invited me to the party? When I look at my two sons, I can’t imagine my life any other way than this, but it very easily could have gone a different direction based on a decision I made one night eight years ago. We are all victims of circumstance, and our lives are defined by the way we make choices based on those winds of fate. As I was watching the film, and it rolls into that last hour or so, the weight of it all and the beauty with which it’s presented just hit me, an accumulated emotional response, and I spent pretty much the entire last hour struggling with silent tears. There was no one single sledgehammer moment. Instead, it was the whole thing, the ideas it raises, the way it forced me to reflect on my own life. I’ve got no idea what anyone else will feel when watching this film, but I suspect each viewer will walk away with a very personal reaction, based on who they are, where they are in their lives, and what they’ve already experienced. Many films are designed to give every viewer approximately the same experience, but BENJAMIN BUTTON seems to be the opposite, a movie that was built with plenty of room for viewers to find their own way to their own reactions, and that’s one of the hardest things to pull off, especially in a film this size. And a big part of why it all works is because this cast all seems to be tuned in to whatever crazy-ass radio station is playing in Fincher’s head alone, all of them in synch with what he’s trying to do where. There is real magic in this film, and only a wee little bit of it can be credited to computers and the incredible work of Digital Domain and the host of other houses who all contributed to the film.
I can’t say enough good things about Taraji P. Henson, who makes you believe that the boundless love that Queenie offers this disturbingly strange baby is enough to keep him alive. It’s a difficult role as written, and could easily have become a stereotype, but Henson brings that same warmth and sparkle to the role that she exhibited as Shug in HUSTLE & FLOW. I wish directors would bump her from supporting to starring roles, because she’s electric when she’s given the right material. Ormond’s work is subtle, but I think it’s some of the best work she’s done. She was brutally overhyped when she first showed up in film, and I think it ended up hurting her. She didn’t really get to hone her craft because there was so much pressure on her to carry films from day one. Here, she plays a smaller role than she used to play, and it benefits her. As I mentioned, Tilda Swinton comes in for what’s basically an extended cameo, and she offers up an indelible portrait of this woman, “plain as paper,” who proves to be such an important milestone in Benjamin’s development. I loved what Jason Flemyng did as Benjamin’s father, particularly in the later sequences in the film as he struggles to be a part of Benjamin’s life, no matter how late it is. Elias Koteas makes a brief but memorable appearance that sets a haunting tone for the film in an opening scene, and Mahershalalashbaz Ali does solid work as Tizzy, the life-long love interest of Queenie. Jared Harris shows up as Captain Mike, a tugboat captain who ends up taking Benjamin to war. His philosophy is a major piece of the puzzle for Benjamin, and Harris does lovely work in the role.
But the film rests on the shoulders of two actors above all others. Cate Blanchett has long since proven herself to be a versatile talent, but part of what she does so well is vanish into her characters. Here, she’s playing a role that doesn’t really offer much in the way of camouflage. Playing Daisy across the span of her whole life, Blanchett has to impart the stages in this girl’s evolution, and she does it with delicacy and real wisdom. Towards the end of the film, as Benjamin reaches childhood, her work just becomes devastating. She and Pitt have an amazing rapport, and his role, which is so technically demanding, could have easily swallowed him whole. But over the years, Pitt’s proven that he’s at his best when he’s being challenged, and he does the best work of his career here. Moving, human, and heartbreaking, he makes Benjamin Button into a real person, not just a novelty.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is that rare film that manages to encompass the whole of the human experience in a mere two and a half hours, and I feel like I saw it at the right moment in my life. It’s something I’ll return to any number of times in the future, and it’s rich and strange and wonderful enough that I expect I’ll find something fresh in it every time. My profound thanks to every person involved in making this magic live and breathe, and I hope all of you reading this embrace the film the same way when it opens on Christmas day. Maybe one of the reasons the film worked on me so deeply is because I’m dealing with the notion of impermanence right now in a very personal way. I’ve been here at Ain’t It Cool News for 12 years now, and I consider Harry to be one of my best friends on the planet. Quint’s like a brother to me. Kraken, too. Mr. Beaks started as a talkbacker, and my correspondence with him led to a friendship that’s endured any number of professional and personal changes. John Robie was just another occasional spy when we first met during one of Harry’s trips to LA, and he’s one of my closest buddies now. The same is true of Dr. Hfhurrhurr, who is the godfather to my first son. And there are so many more friends I've made through AICN in all its forms... live events, the chat, the talkbacks, e-mail... without AICN, I can’t imagine the last decade of my life. And yet... nothing lasts. And so this month starts a transition that’s going to take me from AICN to my new online home, HitFix.com, a process that’s going to take the next six weeks or so. I've met so many great people and had so many remarkable experiences here that I guess a part of me thought that AICN would always just be part of me. It’s a little bit terrifying, and while I’m looking forward to working with a great group of people, part of me feels like I’m leaving behind one of the most significant things I’ve ever done.
Nothing lasts, and as we are blown by the winds of change, we can either bend or break. Here’s hoping I’m strong enough to bend.