Andy Bockelman: 'Benjamin Button' is curiously perfect


— "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" approaches the most crucial, philosophical aspects of our existence - love, friendship, death, etc. Most impressive is the fact that the movie handles such questions in reverse.

Abandoned by his biological parents (Jason Flemyng, Joeanna Sayler) at birth in 1918 New Orleans, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is an unusual baby. Despite being perfectly healthy, he looks like a tiny 80-year-old, and his adoptive caretakers (Taraji P. Henson, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) are unsure what to expect from their newfound miracle.

Benjamin continues to look aged as he grows, but year by year, his appearance becomes slightly less haggard and he starts to develop an ever-growing inquisitiveness about the world around him, from which he has been drastically shielded. He finds a kindred spirit in Daisy (Elle Fanning), a girl who sees past his elderly exterior. Spurred on by her influence, Benjamin ventures out into the world as a teenager, puzzling everyone he meets with his youthful energy and a guise that is catching up with his personality the older he gets.

Fate intervenes before long when Daisy is brought back to him as an adult (Cate Blanchett), but with their lives heading in different paths, their relationship must weather bizarre circumstances.

Pitt gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, touching upon every component of human life - the confusion and wonder of adolescence; the quiet, dignified wisdom of old age; and everything else in between, all of which overlap throughout his story.

Blanchett is especially gratifying as the woman who connects with Benjamin, but does not fully understand his plight until they "meet in the middle," namely their 40s. Likewise, Henson is excellent as Queenie, the surrogate mother figure who loves and protects her child regardless of his perplexing condition.

Benjamin's solo adventures also yield an array of captivating characters, including Jared Harris as crusty sea dog Captain Mike and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, the woman who gives our hero his first encounter with fleeting love and crushing heartbreak.

Without a false moment in its rewardingly lengthy storyline, there is almost nothing to dislike about this refreshing change of pace from director David Fincher, who has shied away from tender moments in gritty, forceful films like "Fight Club" and "Zodiac." Fincher proves that he also can be sweet and reflective by giving the proper treatment to Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth's ("Forrest Gump") loose adaptation of author F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story.

Every element is a marvel, from the aging effects used on Pitt - not to mention the unrecognizable actors who portray Benjamin in the "younger" stages of his life -to those of Blanchett, whose aging is more subtle, but takes full force by the time she is in her twilight years - used as an effective framing device as she relates her account to her daughter (Julia Ormond) while on her deathbed.

What really makes an impression is the circuitous nature of the film, as the lives of Benjamin and Daisy bond like two interlocking rings spinning in opposite directions, but together nonetheless. Benjamin's early experiences growing up in an old age boarding home set the stage for an atypical plot, yet everything in his life synchs up with a normal life in one way or another, grounding what might otherwise seem like a gimmicky idea.

The story is only further enriched by non-sequitur bonuses employing archival cinematography, such as the anecdotes of a kooky nursing home resident (the late Ted Manson) -sole accomplishment: surviving being struck by lightning seven times - or the tragic legend of the blind clockmaker Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), who unwittingly, magically sets everything in motion.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is by far one of the best films to be released in 2008 (it first had a limited release on Christmas Day) - simple, yet complex; whimsical, yet real; mainstream, yet original. Just like its title character it defies description and is certain to garner numerous, well-deserved Academy Award nominations for nearly everyone involved.


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