January 1, 2009

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13)
A man goes from elderly to infantile as he ages backward through his life and through the history of most of the 20th century in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a long but pretty and occasionally poignant epic.

Benjamin (Brad Pitt, with the help of a certain-to-win-Oscars crew of make-up people and CGI genius) is born old. Though baby-ish in size, he is wrinkled and wizened like the senior citizens who live at the boarding house run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the young woman who finds baby Benjamin when he’s left on the home’s back steps. A doctor tells her Benjamin has all the problems that you’d expect in a 90-year-old man and that he’s likely to die soon. Queenie, who has a soft heart and who has had difficulty conceiving a child of her own, decides to care for Benjamin for whatever time he has left. But instead of dying, Benjamin seems to get spryer. He “grows” into a man-boy not unlike a shorter version of the old people around him — bespectacled, hard of hearing, wheelchair-bound but still curious about life. The longer he lives, the healthier he gets; soon he can walk and his vision and eyesight slowly improve.

When he looks about 80 but is probably about 13, he meets Daisy (Elle Fanning and later Madisen Beaty), the granddaughter of one of the elderly women at the home. They instantly become friends, to the dismay of her grandmother, who doesn’t entirely understand how young the old-looking Benjamin is. It’s only a few years later that this still elderly looking boy is taken to a brothel by Captain Mike (Jared Harris), the tugboat captain who eventually hires Benjamin for work that takes them around the world. From every port, Benjamin sends letters and postcards to Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now a ballet dancer in New York City. That is until he gets to Russia and meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the unhappy wife of a British official. He begins an affair with her that sets in motion a lifetime of Daisy and Benjamin meeting at the wrong time, one leaving the other heartbroken, as Daisy goes from being a girl to a woman and Benjamin goes from being an old man to Brad Pitt.

We hear this story of Benjamin’s life through a diary read by a middle-aged Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her aged and probably dying mother Daisy. The two women are in a hospital in the middle of a hurricane. I don’t think the movie explicitly states it but the hospital is in Louisiana, New Orleans or there about, so the hurricane is likely Katrina. I mention this not because the movie makes a particularly big deal of this but because it doesn’t. Unlike Forrest Gump, this movie doesn’t insert Benjamin into old footage. He touches history the way most of us do, experiencing it mostly at the edges — his tugboat duty takes him into World War II; a trip to Florida in the 1960s puts him near the launch of one of the NASA rockets, which he watches only incidently from a boat near the Keyes.

In a movie with the big showy gimmick of its lead character aging backward, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button admirably decides to do everything else subtly. Even the youngening of Benjamin can be subtle — though he grows noticeably younger as we jump from one episode to the next he also grows subtly younger within the chunks of two or three years that the movie focuses on. Considering how bad most aging or youthening make-up is in movies, this movie’s ability to create small changes is kind of a miracle, as is its star’s ability to offer up performances that aren’t entirely reliant on latex wrinkles.

Benjamin Button is a long movie, but it unfolds in a literary way — all inner life and emotional richness — that keeps the movie from feeling long or like a laundry list of events that we have to race through. I must admit that after a month of seeing the movie on “Best of 2008” lists, I expected something a little more, well, magical — not magical in actual bippity-boppity-boo-ness but in its ability to completely engross your senses. There is a coolness to the movie that, if you’re not expecting greatness, I think works very well for the kind of rumination on life and death that it ultimately is. Keeping us at arm’s length, the movie doesn’t allow us to fully know the characters but it also keeps its more fantastical elements from becoming overwhelming. Pitt and Blanchett do give solid performances here even if they’re not exactly giving the performances of their lives.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is most successful at presenting something that looks great and reasonably successful at presenting all the other components of a good movie. B

Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is two hours and 47 minutes long and is distributed by Paramount Pictures.