"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Monday, March 16, 2009

Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The notion of youth being wasted on the young is a compelling one, without a doubt. It inspired a famous Mark Twin quote, which in turn inspired an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which has now lent its name to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film starring Brad Pitt as the title character, born old and destined to die young.

It sounds like a fairytale, and at times, the screen version feels like one, with ethereal flashbacks, eerily spot-on visual effects, and a sweet if improbable romance between Benjamin and his normally-aging love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). But the director and screenwriter almost crowd out the movie's central love story with too much stuff — there's a hurricane plot, a daughter learning the truth about her family, and nearly an hour of Benjamin's wacky adventures. Instead of enveloping the audience in a mystical story, it fights against its narrative, constantly breaking its own spell. Yet there are reasons to watch Benjamin Button even when it feels like work.

Though it doesn't fully kick in till almost halfway through the movie, the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy is worth the price of admission. They're sweet as children (Daisy young, Benjamin physically decrepit) and as 20-somethings (Daisy cool and sophisticated, Benjamin finally starting to look like Brad Pitt), but it's when they meet in the middle, in their 40s, that their love story takes over the film. They don't have much time as equals, and that lends an urgency to their relationship that the rest of the movie lacks. Pitt rightfully gets praised for his work as Benjamin, but Blanchett should get more credit for her performance; unlike Pitt, she doesn't have a voiceover to guide her through the story, but she's a strong enough actress to show Daisy's emotions even without the luxury of explaining them.

It's a shame that the director couldn't trust that story to work on its own, because with that relationship at the center — and maybe with some deeper musings from Benjamin on what it means to be living his life this way — the movie could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it feels emotionally remote and over-cluttered, with a structure reminiscent of both Forrest Gump and Titanic. The early scenes with Benjamin growing up in a New Orleans retirement home are strong — and Taraji P. Henson is outstanding as Queenie, the mother figure who discovers Benjamin abandoned on her stoop and raises him as her own — but once Benjamin leaves home and joins a tugboat crew, the movie drags. It doesn't help that the flashbacks are intercut with scenes of a dying Daisy in the hospital; that plotline never really hits its stride emotionally and mostly just feels detached. And a few references to Hurricane Katrina permanently anchor the movie in a particular era, which feels at odds with its more timeless qualities.

Luckily, just when Benjamin Button starts to feel aimless, the love story takes center stage — and, with that, the movie builds some momentum to reach a satisfying enough end. The special effects are also remarkable (and it's a good thing, because when you're talking about aging Brad Pitt's face and putting it on someone else's body, doing it poorly would be disastrous).

As good as it is in parts, Benjamin Button ends up falling short of what it could have been.

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