Sunday, January 4, 2009

Buttoned Up

I took my first official steps into the Oscar hunt this afternoon, joining a friend at our local multiplex to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This film has arrived in theaters accompanied by the big buzz that it's a top contender for Best Picture, and I can see why.

Clocking in at just under three hours, the film is a cinematic bildungsroman with a decidedly different (and heartbreaking twist). Our hero, Benjamin, is born the same night that World War I ends, and we follow Benjamin from that night through a life made remarkable by the "affliction" with which Benjamin is born. Benjamin is aging backwards. He is born a seemingly shrunken, ancient man, and as the years progress, he "ages" into a better and better looking Brad Pitt. We follow Benjamin through his childhood in a retirement home, his journeys on a tug boat, and his relationships with two equally remarkable woman, Daisy and Elizabeth. It is a stunning story, beautifully shot and tenderly told. It's a lovely three hours, and while you do feel the fact that the film is long (something that, to me, is always compounded when the film in queston follows the span of a lifetime), there was a never a moment where I was checking my watch or fidgeting for the end to come. In fact, when the end came, I have to confess a slight feeling of disappointment, wanting even more time with these characters I had grown to love.

The movie hits so many of the "right" notes. There's the beautiful cinematography, the art design with a lovely eye for detail, the amazing visual effects that turn Brad Pitt into an ancient child who wanders down the streets of New Orleans with crutches as his body shakes off the arthritis and physical afflictions which make him unable to walk, a moving score. Director David Fincher (yeah, that David Fincher ) uses a gentle touch and lets the magic unfold at a lovely pace. How fun to see a director stretch his wings in such an interesting way as he journeys outside of his usual box. I've long admired his work, and my admiration grows even more to see that he's capable of something this epic yet intimate.

Of course, the most beautiful film would be worth little if the acting did not reach the same heights as the artists involved behind the scenes, and Fincher here has assembled a worthy, "pedigreed" cast led by Pitt who turns in perhaps one of if not the finest performance of his career. He gives a subtle, honest performance. I loved how he managed to exude youthful exuberance under the weight of the age makeup in Benjamin's early years. He never lets Benjamin go over-the-top and there's rarely a false note. (Okay, if I did have to quibble with anything, his accent at times does become a little "much" as his New Orleans drawl occasionally dribbles into more stereotype than genuine. But that's a small quibble)

Taraji P. Henson won my heart instantly as the woman who finds the abandoned Benjamin and adopts him, refusing to give up on the child that most label "doomed." She creates a warm, spirited, sassy woman whose faith nurtures Benjamin and gives her the strength to face such a monumental challenge in raising a child such as this one. She has a lot of Oscar buzz circling her, and it's well deserved.

Someone not generating much buzz and yet so worthy of it is Cate Blanchett as Benjamin's beloved Daisy. I'm not sure why she's received so little critical attention other than her work is so subtle and real that it isn't drawing attention to itself and the part of Daisy is a rather thankless role. She doesn't get the "big" moments, perhaps, that, say, Kate Winslet is getting this year. Or maybe it's that she's playing those "big" moments with such a gentle, subtle touch that critics are forgetting her. That's unfortunate. Blanchett is one of the finest actors in film right now (I'd put her with Winslet, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and few others), and this film is yet another fine, honest performance.

Tilda Swinton's time onscreen is significantly less than Blanchett's, but she creates a wonderful, memorable character as Elizabeth. Like Blanchett, Swinton hasn't been getting much buzz, perhaps because she just won for Michael Clayton last year (beating out Blanchett's Bob Dylan in I'm Not There among others). Or perhaps it's because, like Blanchett, Swinton isn't chewing scenery and making a "scene." Or perhaps it's just because Henson's "Queenie" is stealing all that buzz for herself.

Button is worthy of the buzz it is getting, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it be the leader when nominations are announced later this month. If you find yourself with three hours to kill, check it out and see if you are as charmed by the film as I was.

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