T he Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which occupies around 25 pages in the collected works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a slender piece of whimsy, a charming fantasy about a man who ages in reverse, descending through the years from newborn senescence to terminal infancy. As Fitzgerald unravels it, Benjamin’s story serves as the pretext for some amusing, fairly superficial observations about child rearing, undergraduate behavior and courtship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From this odd, somewhat unpromising kernel, the director David Fincher and the screenwriter Eric Roth have cultivated a lush, romantic hothouse bloom, a film that shares only a title and a basic premise with its literary source. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, more than two and a half hours long, sighs with longing and simmers with intrigue while investigating the philosophical conundrums and emotional paradoxes of its protagonist’s condition in a spirit that owes more to Jorge Luis Borges than to Fitzgerald.
While the film’s plot progresses, with a few divagations, in a straight line through the decades of Benjamin Button’s life, the backward vector of that biography turns this Curious Case into a genuine mystery. And the puzzles it invites us to contemplate — in consistently interesting, if not always dramatically satisfying ways — are deep and imposing, concerning the passage of time, the elusiveness of experience and the Janus-faced nature of love.
Above all, though, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a triumph of technique. Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like Minority Report, The Lord of the Rings and Forrest Gump (for which Roth wrote the screenplay), Benjamin Button may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest. While he does treat the audience to a few grand, special-effect showpieces, Fincher concentrates his ingenuity on the setting and the characters, in particular — and most arrestingly — on the faces of his stars, Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF
DIRECTED BY: DAVID FINCHER
STARRING: BRAD PITT (BENJAMIN BUTTON), CATE BLANCHETT (DAISY), TARAJI P. HENSON (QUEENIE), JULIA ORMOND (CAROLINE), JASON FLEMYNG (THOMAS BUTTON), ELIAS KOTEAS (MONSIEUR GATEAU), TILDA SWINTON (ELIZABETH ABBOTT), JARED HARRIS (CAPTAIN MIKE)
RUNNING TIME: 167 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
Blanchett is Daisy, a dancer, bohemian and all-around free spirit who ages gracefully, before our eyes, into a stately modern matron and then into a wasted, breathless old woman. Pitt, for the most part, plays Benjamin, who is born, looking like a man in his 70s, into a prominent New Orleans family in 1918. I say for the most part because near the end of the movie Pitt is replaced by younger and younger children and also because, at the beginning, he is evoked by an uncanny computer-generated confection that seems to have been distilled from his essence. This creature, tiny and wizened, is at once boy and man, but in every scene the ratio is readjusted, until the strapping figure of a familiar movie star emerges, gradually and all but imperceptibly.
The inner life of Benjamin Button, abandoned at birth by his stricken father (Jason Flemyng) and raised by the infinitely kind caretaker of a nursing home (Taraji P. Henson), is harder to grasp than his outer appearance, in part because Pitt seems more interested in the nuances of reticence than in the dynamics of expression. It’s true that Benjamin’s condition imposes a certain detachment: he is at once innocent and ancient, almost never who he appears to be.