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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

12 Jan

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“You haven’t said two words,” says Daisy, gazing across the table at Benjamin, his perfection a constant reminder of her own imperfections.

“I didn’t want to ruin it,” he replies gravely.

***

Quite a few actors in the past have enjoyed playing taciturn characters; an economy with words can be a powerful weapon in an actor’s arsenal. Few of them, however, have taken to it the way Brad Pitt does.

From his breakthrough role in Thelma and Louise to the awfulness that was Meet Joe Black, from Snatch to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pitt seems to revel in roles that force the audience to study his face for a clue to his thoughts rather than its celebrated prettiness. Of course, it’s a move that can backfire, resting as it does on the quality of the writing behind the movie – Meet Joe Black, for instance, drew more attention to his lovely and (it must be said) blank face because there was simply nothing else to take up the slack.

But sometimes, as in Jesse James, a movie that never quite got the amount of love it rightfully deserved, he employs it to stunning effect. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is in much the same vein but springs from another sort of well entirely, employing Pitt the way it does as an eloquent narrator as well as a quiet protagonist.

Like Jesse James, David Fincher’s Benjamin Button is a tragedy told in poetic detail; unlike Jesse James, however, there is a gentleness to this story, a golden richness to its tone that is only heightened by Claudio Miranda’s cinematography. Consequently, it’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in even as you’re swept away by its sheer beauty. Like the carefully constructed clock that grounds this tale, it’s so perfectly put together it can easily leave you out in the cold. It’s poignancy is so total, so complete in itself, that it never stops reminding you that this is a time that has passed forever, a time which you can never enter, even as it seduces you.

For the true curiosity of Benjamin Button is not that its protagonist ages backwards: it lies in the gentleness with which he tells his story because so much of it is just so cruel.

It begins with his mother’s passing in childbirth as the world celebrates the end of the Great War outside his home; passes quickly on to his abandonment by his father who is repulsed by the very sight of him; and moves on to his childhood in a retirement home which is in itself a tiny world of sadness where people come to die. As the young Benjamin watches the children playing across the street from his wheelchair, teetering dangerously on the edge of the steps, we’re watching the stage being set for his role in life: always the observer, never quite the participant, even in his own story; a man whose life is cobbled together from the experiences of others.

Benjamin learns the piano, falls for the red-headed little girl who wants to be a ballerina, and goes away to sea to live a life of adventure before coming home to claim what is rightfully his – it is a romantic tale. But is it really his story he is telling us? Or is it the story of a wise woman who dies alone, the story of a man who lived a lonely life hobbled by his grief, fear and guilt, the story of a girl who wanted to be more than she was?

Are any of our stories truly our own? Or are our lives a collection of stories, pathways forming where we have intersected with others or caught up in events beyond our control?

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In direct contrast to Benjamin is his childhood sweetheart – Daisy (Cate Blanchett). There is no doubt in Daisy’s mind that she is the star of her story. She is beautiful, she is talented, she is a sophisticate and the world is her oyster. If she is thoughtless, cruel and just a little jealous, she is all of these things because it is her right.

Their love story is perfect, meant to be, and a tragedy set to the sound of the clock ticking away.

And yet, the most heartbreaking part of Daisy and Benjamin’s lives together is not that she will grow old and he will grow young – it is that he feels he cannot share his burden with her. Experience has taught him that he is not meant to be a part of a family: it started without his knowledge when his father cast him out, was reinforced by the fact that he was such an outcast that he was adopted by a black woman in the segregated South, and it consumes him now when he looks at his child and realizes he can never be a “proper” father to her.

And the true perfection of Daisy and Benjamin’s lives together is not that they were once beautiful and in love, but that in the end he dies in her arms, knowing that she was there for him, in spite of everything; and that she dies thinking of him.

To paraphrase the nameless lady in diamonds, some tragedies form the essence of life.

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22 Comments

Posted by on January 12, 2009 in Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video

 

22 responses to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  1. memsaab

    January 12, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I’ve seen scenes from this here and there, and they are both so gorgeous…the story reminds me somehow of something John Irving might write.

    Maybe I will see it, although I fear it will be too sad for me.

     
  2. shweta

    January 12, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Oh that was such a poetic review – like memsaab though, it may be too sad for me- need to drum up some courage 🙂

     
  3. complicateur

    January 12, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Interesting how you see it as a tragic. I cant see it as anything other than life affirming and feel good. Maybe because I am a twisted individual.

     
  4. M

    January 13, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Interesting POV. I just thought that the remark Sasha Cohen made yday at the GG, about the premise of this movie applying to everyone in that room was spot on!

     
  5. Mamma Mia! Me a Mamma!?!

    January 13, 2009 at 12:41 am

    What a beautifully written review. You’ve definitely aroused my curiosity about this ‘Curious Case.’ I hope to see it soon.

     
  6. Banno

    January 13, 2009 at 3:28 am

    Amrita, you are so right about Brad Pitt. It always amazes me how he manages to go beyond, or rather take the viewer beyond his beauty. Not an easy task.

    This film is definitely a must-see, wish it comes to theatres here soon.

     
  7. Aroon

    January 13, 2009 at 5:06 am

    A nice interpretation of the movie.. heheh.. i saw the movie a few days back.. it was decent, but when i was watching the treatment of the film was very much like a tim burtonish one.. Of the movies i have seen till now frost nixon and in bruges still remains my fav..

     
  8. DewdropDream

    January 13, 2009 at 6:51 am

    My intentions of watching some movie are always strenghtened on reading your reviews Amrita. That’s a beutiful piece of writing there.

    Might I ask if you’re about to watch Changeling any time soon? 😀 I thought Angelina Jolie’s performance was rather powerful, from what little I saw in the trailers.

     
  9. wordjunkie

    January 13, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Loved this review. And I agree with your observation on Brad Pitt, after seeing him in bloopers like Joe Black and even Legend of the Falls, I was amazed watching him in Babel and Snatch.

     
  10. Ravi Nair

    January 13, 2009 at 10:04 am

    You should become a FULL TIME movie critic Amrita. Nice work :-),……………….

     
  11. Amey

    January 13, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Yeah, the movie might be a bit too sad for me (And I say this after watching Valkyrie). I haven’t read the story (the original story, not the story of the film) either. But I heard many people complaining it is too long. Is it?

     
  12. Amrita

    January 13, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Memsaab – it actually doesn’t hit you in the theatre, at least it didn’t hit me in the theatre. It’s just so beautiful and such a perfect movie to see in the theatre that you come away feeling you’ve seen something beautiful and perfect. And then you sort of mull over it and it’s so sad. But the movie itself isn’t vulgarly sentimental and doesn’t want you to feel the manipulation, i dont think.

    Shweta / Mamma / Ravi – thanks. I hope you guys have a good time watching it, too.

    Complicateur – not at all! I don’t see it as tragic, but I do think it’s a tragedy, if you see the difference. It took me a week to cry, as a matter of fact 🙂 So if you’re weird, then what am I?

    M – I thought he was funny and that room needed to get over itself! 😀

    Banno / Wordjunkie – it’s a little too much almost, all that beauty and he’s a good actor too? Unfair! But he is! And he’s been quietly upping his game in recent years I think. But when I was thinking back over his career graph, I can’t think of any serious embarrassments in his kitty. Like Clooney will always have live down Batman and Robin, you know, but Pitt hasn’t ever gone down that badly in flames.

    Aroon – hmm, I didn’t see the parallel to Tim Burton until you mentioned it just now. But yeah, I can see it. Weird coz it’s not that kind of movie at all. Huh. I haven’t seen In Bruges (I love Colin Farrell but I don’t know, another gritty cop drama? I don’t feel it) but there’ll be a Frost/Nixon review coming up soon as well as Milk and then I should have done all the Oscar best pic noms this year and they should fucking give me a prize too! 😛

    DDD – awww, that’s sweet of you. I hope I’ve been giving you some decent recs. 😳
    I was really hopped up to see Changeling until I read some of the reviews for it and now I don’t know whether I want to or not. If I do, I’ll write about it, I promise.

    Amey – I didn’t think so. But then I liked it and I wanted to know how it all ended 😀 This is so much better than Valkyrie though! The film itself is very different from the original story so I wouldn’t sweat that very much.

     
  13. Red Rooster Reincarnated

    January 13, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    “To paraphrase the nameless lady in diamonds, some tragedies form the essence of life.” – To whichever one of those diamonds it was that caused you to correctly catch its reflection, I’d say Shine On Crazy Diamond! (And no I haven’t seen the movie nor do I plan to, anytime soon. My rule of thumb: Why waste time watching a tragedy when you can live one. And oh yes, I do see what you mean when you say you don’t see it as tragic yet think it’s a tragedy (in the whole having much more emotional heft than the sum of its parts sort of way).

     
  14. Red Rooster Reincarnated

    January 13, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    P.S: Kidding about the rule of thumb, of course. Waiting for the DVD to come out…

     
  15. ana

    January 13, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Amrita, Oye, you’ve gotten so many compliments already but I just wanted to say I get all tingly reading what you write, particularly your reviews. 🙂

    Oh and speaking of Sacha Baron Cohen, I thought he was funny too, although in my blog I wrote it being a faux pas (clarification: in the eyes and ears of the room) Did you see how the camera zoomed in on Salma Hayek twice, as if to reflect what many in the room were feeling?

     
  16. M

    January 13, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Amrita,

    yeah, thought that was funny as well…you know, I must belong in the small sad group of women (surely there’s more than just me?) who don’t find Pitt very good looking? He’s too pretty IMO – much like Aamir and Saif in their youth….

    As for the movie…eh, I have no appetite fro sad movies….maybe someday if I am feeling maudlin enough.

    M

     
  17. Amrita

    January 15, 2009 at 10:43 am

    RRI – I hope you like it! The way people are writing in to this review, I have a nasty feeling I’m going to get pelted with rotten tomatoes after they watch it. 😀

    Ana – yaar, they all take themselves so seriously! I remember when Jon Stewart and Chris Rock were making fun of them at the Oscars (very very gently for them) and everybody was stonefaced then too. I guess they feel they can make their displeasure known to Sasha coz he’s not an insider with power.

    M – it’s actually not that sad! Mummy kasam! Pitt has actually grown on me over the years. I remember when Interview with a Vampire came out and everyone was going crazy over him and TC and I thought they were both strictly ok. I still feel that way about TC but Pitt has managed to make himself interesting. Despite the Brangelina ennui I’ve been experiencing for the past few years.

     
  18. coffee

    January 17, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    it was a little weird to see an old version of Brad Pitt’s face pasted onto a kid’s body, but i guess that’s why they call it a “curious case”

     
  19. Amrita

    January 19, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    i found it even more weird towards the end when the pimply young brad showed up.

     
  20. Pinky

    January 27, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    This movie was good, but I don’t know that it deserved the slew of Oscar nominations it received.

     
  21. Red Rooster Reincarnated

    May 12, 2009 at 2:31 am

    I got hold of the DVD at one of the RedBox vending machines last week but had to turn it in the next day without watching it — no time. (I guess I’ll reserve it again later this week.) But I did want to come back here and re-read your write-up, if nothing else, for its silken softness.

    “…it’s so perfectly put together it can easily leave you out in the cold. It’s poignancy is so total, so complete in itself, that it never stops reminding you that this is a time that has passed forever, a time which you can never enter, even as it seduces you.”

    Love these lines. And those last four paras, ah! The apotheosis of awesomeness. After this high now, I’m well and truly prepared to be deeply disappointed by what I see when I lay hands on the DVD (when expectations go up, isn’t it only inevitable that the experience comes down several notches?)! 🙂

     
    • Amrita

      May 12, 2009 at 2:18 pm

      Sent it back unwatched? I’ve been there! 🙂 This really is a hit or miss movie so I’m always interested to know people’s reactions to it – everyone sees things in it that’s personal to them. So do let me know how it went.

       
 
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