Here is a film in which I was under the impression I didn't need to see as I had seen the whole thing in the trailer. If you don't already know, go watch the trailer and come back, because - spoiler alert! - I'm going to reveal a bit about the plot in this review. Not much, but the big hook, which is this: Benjamin Button is born old and throughout the film, grows young. He has one true love in his life, a girl named Daisy, and the question is, how can these two be lovers? Can a 7 year old girl love a 7 year old boy who looks like he's 77? Will they meet in the middle? Or will time and circumstance leave them star crossed forever? These are interesting enough questions, and an interesting plot device. And if you want to see how it plays out and how the movie ends, once again I recommend heading over and watching the trailer. You'll feel like you know.
You'd be wrong, of course, as there is almost two hours and forty-five minutes of sumptuous film laid out to tell the story of Benjamin. There's a moment at the very beginning where hundreds of buttons fall from the sky and suddenly arrange themselves into the Paramount Pictures logo - followed immediately by more buttons which fall into the Warner Bros logo. This bit of CGI trickery is a good microcosm of the whole film. What starts as many different familiar pieces coming from a new place slowly fall into something we've seen many, many times before. The "a-ha" moment of recognizing the logo is a bit of a let down - if only the buttons had arranged to make something new.
The film is at its best in its early mysteries. Why is Benjamin aging backwards? (It's apparently tied to Teddy Roosevelt, WWI doughboys, a blind clock maker, and public transportation). And why are we learning this story from the New Orleans hospital bedside of a dying woman, who has insisted her visiting daughter (Julia Ormond) read aloud Button's diary as Hurricane Katrina comes ever closer? Director David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) and cinematographer Claudio Miranda contrast the realistic present day reality with the hyper-real, Caruso Properties style vision of the past, where we meet Benjamin, who is played by Brad Pitt almost immediately after infancy.
It's easy to forget and dismiss how fine a film actor Pitt is when his ability to perform is not first to come to mind for most - sexiest man alive, maybe, or Mr. Angelina Jolie. Pitt, in convincing age makeup and unsettling, Smeagolesque CGI work, disappears into the character of Button in his early life as an elder man with pathos, world weariness, and juvenile curiosity all at once. He is a delightful, cuddly creature who is easy to root for. The seed of his love with the girl Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is planted, and off we go to hope for their union. This tale carries us along through a wonderful interlude with the incomparable Tilda Swinton, playing a woman living in Russia married to a spy with more than steeped tea on her mind.
By the time the bombs drop on Pearl Harbor, however, and a shootout occurs at sea (you caught that in the trailer, right?), I found myself with the feeling that I was starting to see something I'd seen before - namely, Forrest Gump, a character who also stumbled with crutches in his childhood, had a loving mama who inspired him to break free and walk, and grew in the Great American History of war, women, and computer generated images, a film also penned by Button screenwriter Eric Roth.
Much has been written about the age makeup used for this film, and it does not disappoint. More impressive than the old age getup, though, is the young age wizardry. Blanchett, who not only ages in this film, is a stunning 19 year old ballerina, and the longer Button's life goes on, the younger Pitt becomes, for much longer than you would think the actor could continue playing the part.
That is part of the film's problem, however, as the early life-older Benjamin Button we follow for almost an hour and a half seems to vanish, replaced with Brad Pitt. The man painting his house in the 1960s doesn't appear to have grown from the man we saw earlier. In a line straight out of The Cool Surface, a staring woman says to Benjamin "You're perfect," and the audience giggles.
What started as an intriguing meditation on when life begins and ends, how one chooses to live it, and how we choose to spend the time we're given spins into a standard story of women in the 70s with straight hair, kissing naked on the beach, and being accepted for who you are. Why no one except a very fleeting few in all of Button's 80 years find it odd that he is growing younger is left to perhaps a few torn pages out of his diary.
The film is worth seeing, probably not worth seeing twice. It is beautiful to look at when it feels real - a solo ballet by Blanchett on a misty gazebo could be a Degas painting. There's a convenient man who is owner of a Button factory that shows up from time to time that may have had dramatic tension but seems to serve only to allow Benjamin some yacht time. And despite numerous returns to the present and desperate news announcers, the devastation of hurricane Katrina is as dangerous and real as a running gag of an old fellow repeating his same life story. The film does reach its inevitable conclusion, with some soul searching voiceover by Button about what it takes to live a life, but this is a Benjamin who has let go of the lives of others far too easily. What started as an extraordinary life winds up being just a curious case of Benjamin Button. For a guy with a most unique perspective, he sure has it good.