Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia OrmondRotten Tomatoes: 76%Our Rating: B+Bottom Line: Zodiac meets Forrest Gump
David Fincher has turned over a new, calmer leaf in recent years. Coming off such tense thrillers as Seven and Panic Room, not to mention the darkly bizarre and brilliant Fight Club, his recent story choices have been nostalgic period-pieces that slowly plod their way through the decades.
With Zodiac this worked against him at the box office, most likely because the audience expected a serial killer movie in the vein of his early work. But in the curious case of Benjamin Button, Fincher again sacrifices his swooping camera shots twisted surprise endings with hopefully much more lucrative results.
This is a holiday epic, a blend of Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton. The story begins on a death bed and uses a Princess Bride-style storytelling device as Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads an old diary out loud to her dying mother.
The life of Benjamin Button then unfolds in a professional but familiar manner. He learns about life, tastes rebellion and lust, and wanders the world, all while yearning for the affection of his childhood love Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
This is familiar film territory for winter months at the theatre, but what really makes Button stand out is the astounding use of special effects. While this is not a film that panders to spectacle, it is a film that depends on spectacle to effectively convey its story. The prosthetic make-up that allows the gorgeous Cate Blanchett to morph into a withered, dying old woman is possibly the greatest ever used on film. It's so real, in fact, that it's almost unbearable to watch. While many film make-up artists can capture the essence of these kind of scenes, the make-up in Button captures the essence without asking the audience to distend belief by ignoring cheesy rubber jowls.
The CGI in the film is also used to wondrous effect. Near the end of the film when Benjamin (Brad Pitt) appears after a long absence and steps into the light, I defy the audience not to gasp as they see the exact same Pitt that grinned on screen in Thelma and Louise. They are implementing a similar technology that was used to "youngify" Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the third X-Men movie, but unlike that unfortunate film, Button looks stunningly real.
Make no mistake, while the special effects (practical and virtual) are amazing, they are only effective in so far as the actors beneath the rubber and computer code. Both Pitt and Blanchett turn in consummate performances and the cast of supporting characters are all fantastic. This is partly because screenwriter Eric Roth uses each supporting character to great effect, giving each his or her own complete story and entertaining quirks. Particularly effective was an old man who intersperses the long story of Benjamin Button with his various accounts of being struck by lightning. Fincher cuts away to vintage-style footage of the actor being struck down to the ground in a puff of smoke and each time it is equally hilarious. In the hands of lesser filmmakers this would be nothing more than a fun gimmick, but Roth and Fincher give even this small part of the film the attention it deserves to complete its story.
Benjamin Button is a shining example of filmmakers at their prime. It's a moving, beautiful epic that stretches boldly towards the three hour mark but, much like its main character, never wastes a single minute.