Spectacular performances add strength to a moving film
F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was a lighthearted tale, meant to be a humorous "what if?" But screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") enriches this tale of a man born old, living life in the opposite direction to everyone around him, and dying an infant – transforming a simple narrative into a mesmerizing and timeless chronicle of emotion, humanity and magic.
The film combines two central ideas – the world has never-ending potential, but each person only has one life and one time to see it all through, no matter the circumstances. Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born old, with arthritis and crippling cataracts. The film follows his youthful transformation as he gains mobility, becomes part of a tugboat crew that eventually fights in World War II and courts the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), in a dance of romance.
Although Benjamin's circumstances are the premise of the story, the movie revolves around the people that come and go in Benjamin's life - the lonely wife of a spy (Tilda Swinton), Benjamin's warm and bustling adopted mother Queenie (Taraji Henson), and the young girl who eventually blossoms into the love of Benjamin's life. Through their relationships with Benjamin, the film delves into the pain and complexities of these characters, and the talent of the supporting cast shines through. Swinton is lonely and wounded as the wife of a British spy, and Henson portrays Benjamin's mother with open charisma and warmth.
Blanchett's dazzling performance spans a lifetime, beginning with a supple young dancer with the world ahead of her, to a middle-aged woman with family and ending with a wrinkled old woman in a hospital. The special effects, CGI and makeup, applied to make Benjamin and Daisy seem younger work wonders, but do not distract from their performances.
Benjamin, although the title character, is fairly quiet and spends most of his time narrating rather than speaking. This role is fitting, nonetheless, as his strange ailment sets him apart from the rest of the world and he grows up isolated. The eloquence of the movie stems from his quiet observations and his fresh perspective on the tragedies and beauties of life.
The film captures the pain and wonder of life and explores how decisions create fate while balancing both its light and dark aspects almost perfectly. The movie's centerpiece scene is rewound through Benjamin's narration as he delineates all the small trifling decisions that created this piece of fate - a taxi driver who stopped to get coffee, a young woman who forgot her coat, the dancer who stopped for a friend. The dark, ugly consequence is portrayed with a certain wonder, almost a kind of beauty.
"Button" sees life as a chain of endless possibilities, all of which we are powerless to control. "You never know what's coming for you," Benjamin's adopted mother tells him early on, a line that is repeated throughout the film. But no matter what route you take or what you do, the movie says, everyone ends up in the same place.
Clocking in at just under three hours, "Benjamin Button" has only one vice: sometimes dragging on with little action. But "Button" is not a movie of motion; it is one of mood and atmosphere. The stunning visual effects - the lighting throughout the film is especially beautiful - give the movie its intimate, homely feel that seems isolated and closed off at the same time.
With a stormy ending as Hurricane Katrina sweeps into New Orleans, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a beautifully rendered tale of emotions and experiences that transcend age and time. At its weakest, it is a sentimental exploration of life, and at best it is eloquent, moving and gorgeous.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (159 minutes) is rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Now playing in theaters everywhere.
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