Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I think I've now allowed enough time to pass to recover from my 30 minute sob-fest at the end of this movie. I went in ready to be swept away and, oh but I was!

First, you should read this excellent review that variety posted. It gives you more background on the story, as I won't be going into specifics about plot details.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which immediately gives the film the kind of pedigree that makes people sit up and take notice. Throw in an Academy Award-winning writer (Eric Roth - Forrest Gump, Munich, The Good Shepherd, amongst others...), an acclaimed director (David Fincher - Zodiac - one of my favourite movies incidentally, Panic Room, and Video Hits: Paula Abdul. Wait. What?), and Brad Pitt and you've got yourself near-instant Oscar buzz.

Do I think that it'll win? My guess is that it has a fair shot at Best Picture. It's the kind of story that the Oscars love - unique yet universal, sad but not depressing, set in the English-speaking world and against the backdrop of a lovely love story. Going by the Golden Globe noms that have already been announced, I'm thinking that it will likely take the big prize - especially considering the other movies in the category seem too real (Frost/Nixon), too sad (Revolutionary Road), too foreign (Slumdog Millionaire & The Reader).

As far as Brad finally getting his elusive Oscar? I don't think it'll be his year. He's covered in make up for most of the movie and, even though he does a fantastic job, I feel like people think that the role sort of acts itself - it's easy to act old when you are covered in age spots with tufty grey hair poking out of your ears. Though, to his credit, I've never seen him this vulnerable in a role. It was the kind of performance that stays with you long after leaving the theatre.

It's a shame about Cate Blanchett (Daisy) not receiving a Globe nom - she was fantastic in this movie, as she is in everything she does. I guess folks just wanted to give the newcomers a shot? Meryl Streep, this might be your year! Regardless, she was flawless in this role and the movie would not have been what it was without her.

Set primarily in New Orleans, the movie's sweeping scope also take us through New York City, Paris, and Russia, giving the story a stunning visual backdrop and Brad Pitt a chance to look hot on a tugboat in the middle of frozen tundra (anything is possible, truly). It clocks in about 15 minutes shy of 3 hours, which I suppose accounts for the fair bit of globetrotting done by the characters. I started to feel shifty about 1/2 way through, but in retrospect I can't think of anything that they could cut to shorten the running time.

To address the biggest question I know you all have - yes, Brad Pitt was stunningly handsome. I'm talking take your breath away, want to emit a high pitch squeal kind of hot. You have to wait about an hour and change before you actually get to see him as his normal self, which creates this gigantic build up that finally gets released. And, let me tell you, a better scene could not have been picked to debut the make-up-less Brad than him on a motorcycle, steering casually with one hand, bespectacled and in leather. As my friend Stephanie so succinctly put it, "I've actually never wanted to applaud so loudly in a movie before!"

Cate Blanchett also looked absolutely ephemereally stunning. Whether she was the 23 year old Daisy or the 70-odd year old Daisy, she was a vision. And I have a feeling she also did most of her own dancing in the film, which leads me to ask the heavens above why one woman should be so blessed? And nakee scenes with Brad to boot??! Sheesh.

Both Brad and Cate had to age 60 years in the film, some of which looked like it was done with little to no assitance from a visual effects team. I'd say there was a good 20 year span where the both of them played Benjamin and Daisy respectively from their early 20s to mid-40s with little more than some eye make up and some scotch tape. Brad Pitt truly did look like he was 20 again... it was amazing - and also, frankly, a little disconcerting as it left me wondering if I can recreate that kind of magic with my scotch tape at home. I'm pretty sure this is how bad ideas are born...

What stays with you, though, isn't how long the movie is or where they go or how hunky Brad Pitt looks on a motorcycle - it's the universality of a story so unique that at first glance it seems impossible to find yourself anywhere in it. We know going in how different Benjamin is from the rest of us, but what we don't know is how alike we are to him.

Most interesting to me was the fact that his difference, though central to the story, was rarely touched upon with the kind of emotional gravity you'd expect: Benjamin ages backwards, it's a matter of fact and dealt with accordingly. Little time is spent in speculation about his condition or why he has it, rather the story focuses on how he reacts to the world around him reacting to him.

In fact, that's what makes Benjamin so endearing - he's not an active force in the movie, he passively accepts the world around him and deals with the cards dealt to him as they are dealt. Sure, the twists and turns of fate bring him to some terribly sad decisions, but they are acknowledged as a part of life: Benjamin accepts the bad with equally as much levity as he accepts the good. I suppose that's what comes from growing up the way he did in an old age home - life and death, good and bad, are eventualities and cannot be actively controlled. He is fully in the moment at all times, not worrying about what's to come or what's already passed.

So while his unique life challenges and his attitude towards them differentiates him from the audience, he still manages to reach out to us by connecting to the universal story: we are born, we love, we die ( a nutshell, right?). This is as true for Benjamin as it is for the rest of us, though we take very different paths to get there. So when Benjamin falls in love with Daisy we understand the connection, even while he looks like an old man and she looks like a young woman. When Benjamin faces the reality of having to leave his child before he becomes too young (old?) to parent her we understand the loss, even if we age parallel to those we love.

It is perhaps in this way that we all have something to learn from Benjamin: "life, being what it is, a series of intersecting lives and incidents" should not be fought against or controlled but rather accepted moment to moment. Whether we are born old or born young, we will all end up in diapers, hopefully craddled by the one we love in our last moments. And in between, "we can make the best or the worst of [it]." As Benjamin so wisely advises, "I hope you make the best of it."

Go see this movie, friends. It opens Christmas Day.

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