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Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The

dir: David Fincher
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David Fincher almost gets a lifetime pass from me for Fight Club. It’s a film so goddamn good that it elevates him into the lofty heights of directors whom I’ll defend even if they make twenty shitty films compared to their one or two masterpieces. Brad Pitt has no such pass from me, lifetime or otherwise. I have such a deep antipathy for his brand of actoring that he is usually the weakest link (for me) even in the strongest of films.

This flick, right off the bat, I enjoyed, very much so, despite the fact that there is less going on here than meets the eye. The premise sounds like it’s high concept enough, but it’s used more for its ironic sense than anything else. A F. Scott Fitzgerald short story is the origin of the film’s screenplay, but it has been fleshed out and elaborated upon in order to make it a serious, prestige Oscarbait contender, instead of the Twilight Zone half-hour that it probably warranted instead.

In the early part of the 20th Century, a clockmaker grieves over the death of his son in the Great War. He constructs a clock for a train station that runs backwards instead of forwards, with the (poetic, not literal) hope that such a clock going backwards would reverse time and resurrect the many sons who died needlessly, bringing them home to their devastated families.

It is, without doubt, the most touching moment of the movie. It occurs in the first few minutes, and, truth be told, the flick never matches or exceeds those moments from there onwards. It does, however, remain interesting.

As the war ends, a baby is born to a woman who dies in childbirth. The aggrieved father, hoity toity Mr Button (Jason Flemyng) is angry at the newborn before he even sees it. Despite promising to his dying wife that he will not abandon the child, he dumps Benjamin on the back doorstep of an old folk’s home.

The baby looks aged and wizened, and suffers from ailments most often associated with the ancient and nearly dead. The merciful Queenie (Taraji P. Nelson), the African-American woman who runs the old folk’s home, takes pity on the poor child, and elects to look after him for as long as he’s got. No-one expects the little mutant to live for long.

But live he does, and the process of aging backwards for him is ironically enough very similar to what growing up is for most of us. As a child trapped in the body of a nonagenarian, he has to learn how to walk the same way any other toddler needs to learn to teeter.

He grows up surrounded by the aged and infirm, a lot of people not long for this world, but from many of them he learns many a lesson. Stuff like piano playing, how to pick up chicks, how often a person can get hit by lightning, but the most pervasive lesson he learns is that people are only ever on the road to death.

It would not be overstating matters to point out that, considering his condition, Benjamin essentially is the obsession with death personified, but I’ll go on about that a bit later. I haven’t yet made mention of the framing device through which the story is told to us, mostly because I wanted to blot it out of my memory because I thought it was so cheap and awful.

Thing is, I’ve got too much of a memory, and without drinking some paint thinner, I’m not going to dislodge it, alas and alack.

After the maudlin intro with the grieving clockmaker at the beginning, the setting shifts to New Orleans, just a few years ago. A woman (Julia Ormond) waits for her ancient crone of a mother (Cate Blanchett) to pop her clogs and finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

The problem is, the old bat has been waiting all her life not only to die, but to tell her daughter all about herself and about an amazing chap she once knew called Benjamin. She wheezily instructs her daughter to take out a huge journal from one of her bags, and to start reading it to her to soothe the pain that the morphine presumably can’t get to.

And, as Hurricane Katrina (I’m not kidding, Hurricane fucking Katrina) gets closer and closer to the hospital, she relates this ‘incredible’ story to us, the lucky viewers.

Young but looking like a hideous old pervert Benjamin meets a very young redhead called Daisy, who will be the love of his life. She, like everyone else in the movie, greets his reverse-aging with surprise but not much else, as if it’s something odd but not completely outside the realms of normal human experience. The fact is, once people heard about his predicament, those pseudo-scientific ‘institutes’ that make face creams for gullible and hopeful women claiming to reverse or suspend the effects of aging, would have kidnapped Benjamin and cut him open to find out what made him tick, and what was making the years melt away. Age is, after all, our most implacable, Terminator-like enemy. And, life ain’t, in the immortal words of the poet Ice Cube, nothing but bitches and money.

But enough philosophy. With every new scene, Benjamin keeps getting younger and younger, to the point where he can eventually pass himself off as a spry senior, who wants to work in order to find something to do and to get away from home. He hooks up with some sailors (not in that way, you dirty-minded perverts), and learns more and more about life and existence the proper way the rest of us apparently do as well: through drinking and having sex with prostitutes.

Time passes, and by now Benjamin is being played by Brad Pitt instead of an elaborate and amazing computer generated version, although the use of CGI still permeates the flick. There are almost more special effects in use in this flick than in something like I, Robot or the Transformers flicks, but to better effect, or at least they are used in service of the story instead of because of it. I know, it sounds awfully pretentious, but then again, reviewing films for one’s own amusement probably constitutes the heights (and depths) of pretentiousness.

Benjamin, acted in an understated way throughout the flick (thankfully) by Pitt, travels through the ages, with everyone aging around him except Daisy, who pops in and out of his life with annoying regularity. His deep love for Daisy doesn’t stop him from hooking up with other women, but she is the only one he longs for. Her career as a ballet dancer makes her both insufferable (for us) and unattainable for a while to Benjamin, who despite his miraculous nature, doesn’t really seem to be very connected to anyone or anything in his life.

The plot, if you can call it that, jumps continents and oceans, incorporating World War II, beddable Russian spies and gay Paris, but eventually has to come home to Nawlins, as it is pronounced by all and sundry. All the while people assume that Ben is much more worldly, wise and seasoned because of his appearance, but they never figure out that he is but a boy still learning the ropes of existence.

Herein lies one of the issues I have with the film. It’s not a problem per se, because it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it that much, but it does gnaw a little at the back of the brain stem.

Benjamin is really little more than Forrest Gump, without the historical revisionism, charming folksy manner, painful mannerisms or the unerring ability to be and say the right retarded thing in the right place at the worst time. Also, like Chauncey Gardener from Being There, he’s mostly a blank slate that other characters project everything they want him to be onto. He is a silver screen projected onto a silver screen, which means he, and to a lesser extent, the flick, ends up feeling a bit hollow.

When something I won’t spoil happens, and it looks like everything is going to go “all right” for Benjamin and his lady love, his increasing awareness that his advancing youth will eventually render him incapable of being there for the ones he loves makes him abandon them. I doubt we’re meant to applaud his decision, but we are meant to understand that he does what he does because he thinks it’s for the best, rather than the usual reason, being selfishness.

The film takes the natural consequences of its premise, and carries them through to the end, making it for me, especially at the end, an incredibly melancholy experience. That kind of melancholy sadness permeates the entire flick, and I guess is reflected in almost everything from the visual tones and set design to the music, which of course is full of heart-tugging string sections as required by all prime Oscarbait material.

As worthy as I feel the overall production was, and as depressing as the overall premise is (being that people constantly aware of their own mortality don’t get to really appreciate life), I ultimately found it somewhat affecting, but not to the extent the makers imagine. Niggling problems, like the fact that Benjamin doesn’t really do much of anything, Cate Blanchett’s occasional annoyingness as the younger Daisy, and the stupid nature of the framing device (as in, how does this daughter know next to nothing about her own mother, so that every aspect of her history is a revelation and a shock?), don’t completely obviate my enjoyment of the flick, but they don’t enhance it either. I don’t know if the flick could really have been ‘more’ than what it is, considering its bring-down nature, and I guess I like it enough for what it is, and for the fact that it avoided the feel-good elements that would have predominated in a lesser production. It still gets pretty hokey at times. Damn hokey.

Still, recommending it to others would be an act of cruelty I can’t countenance, in all conscience. It’s one long-ass, depressing film. I remember when the flick was nominated for various awards, comedian Stephen Colbert claimed the nominations proved conclusively that Americans approved of torture.

And I can’t really argue with that.

7 ways life forwards seems as exhausting as life backwards out of 10

“Did you know that I was struck by lightning seven times?” – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.