Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character (Brad Pitt) is born not as a child, but as an 80-something man with all of the physical defects that the elderly often have: hair loss, arthritis, age spots. Physically he is an old man, but mentally he is infantile. As time progresses, Benjamin gets younger physically, but older mentally. He meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who is near his mental age at 11 years old, but they look like they are 60 years apart. This faux age gap does not bode well for their on-again-off-again relationship that only really takes flight when the couple reaches similar physical ages (in their forties).

As noted by /film, the bulk of the film plays out like Forrest Gump (cute comedic moments, flashbacks, major events in American history) and this is no surprise as both Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button are written by Eric Roth. Both films seem to use extraordinary circumstances to explain ordinary life. According to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, life is not about how long you live, who you love, or what you do. Life is about experiences. And Benjamin experiences life to the fullest; he travels the world, meets many fascinating characters, but always comes back to Daisy.

This film is presented as a series of flashbacks from Benjamin’s journal read by Daisy’s daughter as Daisy is lying on her deathbed in a hospital in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina is imminent, and while it sounds cheesy to add this into the plot, it actually contributes to what the film is trying to say. Benjamin is born as an old man, thus it becomes obvious that his ‘death’ will occur at a set time; his clock is ticking. Impending doom and the actions of the dying seem to be a common theme through the film. Storms are used to convey this theme on multiple occasions. At the beginning of the film, the hurricane is known to be heading directly for New Orleans. At this point, Daisy’s daughter is reading the first section of Benjamin’s journal; he is distraught and outcast from society. As Benjamin’s life takes a few turns for the better in the flashback, the hurricane appears to be turning away from the city. But as things start to go wrong, the hurricane turns back. This goes hand in hand with the more obvious theme: time. Clocks are the subjects of many a close up in this film and they often dominate shots just as the progression of time dominates the character’s lives.

Lighting is very important in this film. The first flashbacks are extremely dark as not very much is understood about Benjamin’s condition. The current setting, the hospital in New Orleans, however, is lit with harsh, white light illuminating everything. This goes to reinforce the adage “Hindsight is 20/20.” The light suggests that life is understood. As Benjamin’s life progresses, the flashbacks get progressively brighter in lighting, indicating that more is being understood.

All the symbolism and messages aside, this is a solid film. It was beautiful to look at, solidly acted, and it has an engaging story. However, life is not understood backwards as the films suggests. In fact, not much is understood at all. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button merely pokes at themes larger than its own scope and only leaves the viewer with an empty feeling.

Grade: B-

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