One of the year’s most enchanting films comes from a very unlikely source. Director David Fincher, a visual genius known more for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box than warming our hearts, gives us The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, his third teaming with Brad Pitt. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a movie that puts a spell over you for nearly three hours, and Fincher proves he is right at home in enchanting fable territory.
The special effects are extraordinary, perhaps some of the best visual achievements ever put to film. The movie tells the tale of Benjamin Button (Pitt), born an 80-year-old baby who ages backwards. Over the course of the film, we see an elderly baby grow in size, eventually turning into the Brad Pitt we all know, then shrinking into infancy. His reverse aging is a wonder to behold, especially when the elderly character is the size of a 10-year-old.
Brad Pitt’s features merged into that of an 80-year-old man-child’s is something to see, for sure. Bound to a wheelchair at first and residing in New Orleans, Benjamin and Queenie, the woman raising him (an excellent Taraji P. Henson), are convinced he’s just a sick boy who will die soon. But Benjamin, during a very funny and visually amazing faith healing sequence, learns to walk, notices his body toning up, and starts to grow in height. He’s essentially going backwards.
As Benjamin leaves old age, he travels all over the world, including a stint on a boat with crusty sea captain Mike (the funny and ever reliable Jared Harris). One of the film’s best sequences involves Benjamin at sea during wartime, sailing into treacherous waters at night. Fincher stages this scene in a manner that is actually quite frightening and reminds us of his ability to make movies that can be disturbing and tense.
The screenplay was written by Eric Roth, who also penned Forrest Gump, another picture about a man’s epic journey. At the film’s core is an endearing love story between Benjamin and Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
We are introduced to Daisy as she lies in her death bed with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on her hospital, and then watch the character age through flashbacks. One of the film’s framing devices is Daisy’s daughter (Julia Ormond) reading from Benjamin’s diary, finding out for the first time about Benjamin’s involvement in their lives. Fincher and his visual team do a wonderful job of making Blanchett look like a 20-year-old ballerina, as well as an old woman preparing for her trip into the great hereafter.
Pitt has always done his finest work in Fincher films. Fight Club and Seven are easily two of his best performances, and there’s something very special about what he does in Button. His acting here is quiet and subtle, and it’s remarkably effective. It’s a banner year for the actor with his distinguished work here and his outrageous performance in Burn After Reading. I’m hoping he makes at least three more films with Fincher.
As impressive as the actors are, this one is mostly a triumph for Fincher. His projects have always had a certain darkness about them, and while Button isn’t void of the dark side and sadness, it certainly has a more upbeat vibe. It can also be defined as epic, and leaves no doubt that Fincher can handle a grand scale production.
As with all of Fincher’s movies, every frame of the film feels as if the director took great care with it. He’s one of the great visual directors, but this film is also further proof of his deft ability to get great acting from his performers. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gets the distinction of timeless classic right out of the gate.