Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Benjamin Button's Travels in Time

Despite its 13 oscar nominations (or perhaps because of them) we did not expect The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be so enjoyable. It isn't overly sentimental and it isn't Forrest Gump in reverse. In fact only Benjamin's World War 2 adventures on a tugboat border on the preposterous plot of that popular epic.

Brad Pitt is very good. He holds his own in a very talented cast. However, he doesn't warrant the academy award for best actor ahead of Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn. He would have had more chance of a supporting actor oscar for Burn After Reading.

It is hard to suspend disbelief in the early parts of Benjamin's life. It seems a bit too much like Bilbo Baggins in old age. It's easier after he leaves home as a fully-grown, if wrinkly adult. Later we are in familiar Pitt territory until his youthful James Dean persona becomes too young for his motorbike.

Cate Blanchett as Daisy gives her usual competent performance but is less than convincing as a ballet dancer. Eric Roth's screenplay cleverly intersects their lives at critical moments for both characters.

The strongest of the female actors are Taraji P. Henson as Button's mother Queenie and Tilda Swinton as his wartime lover Elizabeth Abbott. Henson (and Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler) is far more deserving of the supporting actress academy award than Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Elizabeth's long distance swimming is a nice twist. There is a touch of irony in their younger woman/older man romance which is echoed by Benjamin and Daisy's older woman/younger man encounter later in the film.

The psychological aspects of Button's experiences are far more engaging than his physical metamorphoses. I wonder what Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde would have made of all this. Our society's quest for eternal youth and the perfect body are the stuff of social satire. Burn After Reading is a good example. At times The Curious Case takes itself too seriously. It isn't funny enough given its subject matter.

The reading of Benjamin's diary as narration for the story is a tired device. However, the clever use of Hurricane Katrina as background to the unfolding episodes in Benjamin's life overcomes the shortcomings of this cinematic cliché.

Don't be put off by the inevitable preconceptions created by the film's publicity. It's worth seeing on the big screen.

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