Friday, January 16, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button :Movie Review and Critique Christine Albrecht

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Read Fitzgerald's Original Story

Directed by David Fincher

Original Story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Brad Pitt (Benjamin)

Cate Blanchett (Daisy)

Julia Ormand (daughter)

Before launching into a nit-picking, plot questioning critique of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I wanted to share some theatre observations, as well as acknowledge several of the film's merits. The original short story was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the movie's screenplay (long held by Ray Stark) had been purchased and directed by David Fincher.

I purposely went to the 4:30 viewing at Colosseus Cinema on Boxing Day, during a hefty snow storm, with the smug assumption I'd have the theatre to myself. Well, apparently everyone felt smug that day as the theatre was packed and I was just able to grab the last few seats. I understand The Curious Case... had just opened the day previous, but I hadn't anticipated this faithful attendance.

While watching this movie, I mentally hummed the chorus to The Faces' song, Ooh La La. I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger. Benjamin Button represents those "What ifs..." we all experience from time to time, while reminiscing those mistaken beliefs of our youth. A brief yearning to go back in time, yet still be empowered with current knowledge.

After viewing "The Curious Case..." I was unable to gauge any kind of audience reaction, as this movie threw a blanket of silence on everyone, myself included. I have never attended a show where the audience didn't verbally assess the experience on their way out. If quiet introspection was capable of sound, like a car horn, our exiting would be akin to a New York Taxi Drivers' convention. A cacophony of deep thought.

Both the book and the movie version of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button contain the line "I was born under unusual circumstances..." and that is where the similarities end. I readily admit that I understand the purpose of the differences as I am not fond of Fitzgerald's main character.

We all hate getting older, but who would actually want to get younger as they progress through life? To be have the agonies of painful adolescence ahead of one? The powerlessness and dependency of early childhood, while cognizant of the lifetime one has experienced? No thanks. Yet that is what Brad Pitt has managed to portray to viewers, while maintaining a thoughtful and quiet acceptance of his situation.

I have glanced through critics' reviews of the movie, and I am confused by their disregard of the glaring discrepencies between the book and the movie. I will volunteer to point at the elephant in the room because, after all, he's huge!

Benjamin Button had the misfortune (or to some, good fortune) to be born an old man. Our character enters this world as a baby, albeit an arthritic, slow moving, cataract impaired newborn. The movie dramatically shows Benjamin being rejected by his father (after his mother dies during his birth) and subsequently abandoned. The book has Benjamin being emotionally abandoned, but nonetheless, remaining at home where his old-man behaviours are a source of embarrassment to his father who constantly demands that Benjamin behave more child-like.

Aside from peripheral characters entering and leaving Benjamin during his formative years (which helps explain his varied education and philosophies) the book and movie differ in many other areas. The most serious digression from the original is in Benjamin's aging process. Fitzgerald has his protagonist born with an 85 year-old's thoughts, behaviour and attitude whereas Fincher's movie has the character physically representing an 85 year-old, but mentally on par with a newborn. As the book-Benjamin becomes more immature, in keeping with his age defying appearance, the movie -Benjamin becomes more worldly and wise while physically regressing.

I understand the reasoning behind Pincher's version of Benjamin Button's aging. Overall, Fitzgerald's original character is not a likable guy; meanwhile there's something bittersweet in watching movie-Benjamin experience his first drink, first love, etc. as an 18 year-old man housed in the body of a 65 year-old senior. Movie-Benjamin is more appealing to the average viewer than 7 year-old, book-Benjamin smoking cigars, cursing, and leering at woman.

The movie contains a few changes that I didn't understand as necessary. Why is Benjamin abandoned at an old folks' home in the care a single, financially strapped, black woman (Taraji P Henson)? Henson delivers an outstanding performance as Benjamin's adoptive mother, Queenie, but how necessary was this change to the story's telling? I am grateful for the entertainment of the old folks' home setting as it allowed for a nice introduction to the developing love story between Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and Benjamin (Brad Pitt).

As well, some of the seniors residing alongside Benjamin at the home, provided the much needed comic relief during an otherwise somber movie. For example, the comedic, intermittent presence of 'The General' whose self-introductory line to Benjamin is consistently, "Did you know I've been struck by lightning 7 times?" We are then given a visual of The General being struck.

I wondered if the writer(s) felt Benjamin wouldn't have been able to explore his 'firsts' during early manhood if his parents were around, or more vigilant? (However, that implies adoptive/foster parents are less aware of their children's behaviour or whereabouts.) As well, why couldn't his movie father have maintained the book's hardware business? Why did the movie allow a simplistic 'button manufacturer' family business? As well, if they wanted Benjamin to be perceived as an abandoned orphan, why reintroduce his father (aside from to explain an inheritance)? Finally, although less melodramatic, the movie's ending would be equally touching to view baby-Benjamin nestled in bed, near his Nana in the home of his son, Roscoe (book), than in the arms of his lover, Daisy (movie). I will admit I was sucked into the movie's predictable moment when infant Benjamin and aged Daisy lock eyes, and exchange a fleeting moment of complete recognition and love. Like a silent farewell. So corny, yet so wonderful, necessitating the folded arms, stare-at-the-ceiling-and-blink-rapidly, stance.

I have always enjoyed Brad Pitt's acting yet I sympathize with him as his undeniable good looks immediately discount any acting talent he possesses; forcing him to work three times harder than the likes of Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, or Jack Nicholson. Cate Blanchett is a perfect counter-partner for Pitt, visually and in spirit and timing. The make-up/ visual effects artists responsible for the characters' aging demonstrated remarkable talent, as they allowed us to witness the characters realistically age, or de-age in Benjamin's case. Daisy gracefully ages from the feisty, stunning dancer to a bedridden senior resisting removal from her hospital care during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.Julia Ormond's character (as Benjamin's and Daisy's daughter) was so milquetoast, she could have been invisible. She was simply the vessel whose questions allowed Daisy to recollect and share her untold youth. Throughout the flashbacks of Daisy's recollections, I had difficulty determining which time period showed Pitt's and Blanchett's characters as they are in reality. The make-up effects should merit an Oscar nod.

I suppose, in order to make money, it was decided that The Curious Case... should evolve as a love story, one which supports the "love can surpass both time and age" rather than keep with F. Scott Fitzgerald's razor-sharp, sardonic look at society's celebration of youth, and open disdain towards aging. If that story had been kept, there wouldn't be much to love as book-Benjamin figuratively holds a mirror up to a class-conscious society, thus reflecting the absurdity of placing importance upon appearance and material accumulation. Both the book and the movie do drive home the importance of character. It's what inside that counts. Movie-Benjamin has 'character' in spades.

I enjoyed the movie, just as I enjoyed the short story (see link to story above), and I am grateful that never the two did meet. The two versions are so vastly different; combined, it couldn't have worked. Perhaps someone will come forth with a modified 3rd version; one which nicely melds the original and movie version. I have heard there is another story out which offers more depth to Fitzgerald's original plot. Perhaps this is the third view I am searching for. It is also titled the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and is written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (with illustrations by Kevin Cornell).

For scenic views, Pitt's and Blanchett's artistically balanced acting, masterful make-up (10/10), and for allowing Benjamin to be portrayed as a likable character, I give the movie 8.5/10.

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