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"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Directed by David Fincher.
Written by Eric Roth.  Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and Tilda Swinton.
Release Year:  2008
Review Date:  12/7/08


My buddy Yac and I took in a free showing of the upcoming drama "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" on Thursday night.  The buzz around this film is legit, but Yac and I both agreed on one thing for the first time in a long time:

This movie is really fucking long...ironic, given that it is based on a short story.

Directed by David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" adds to an already impressive list of thrillers, including "Se7en", "The Game" and "Panic Room", not to mention everyone's favorite cult classic, "Fight Club."  He brings back frequent star Brad Pitt to play Benjamin, a man with an interesting dilemma--he is aging backwards, so at birth, he is the size of a baby but with the health issues of a 90-year-old man...this leads his father (Jason Flemyng) to desert Benjamin the day he is born.  Over the course of his life, Benjamin will be raised in New Orleans by a house servant named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, from "Hustle & Flow"), sent off to work on a tugboat, suffer the loss of dozens of childhood friends--he grows up in a senior-citizens home where his mother works--while growing younger in body throughout his life, fall in love with a girl who he met at the home, Daisy (later played by Cate Blanchett), meet a world-class swimmer (Tilda Swinton), rediscover his father later in life and inherit a fortune, only to give it all away and live all over the world.

"Button" is an incredibly vast production.  At times, it is true greatness, the likes of which you HAVE seen before when it comes to Fincher.  It also falls prey to literally the exact same thing that plagued his last and maybe most disappointing effort, "Zodiac", because there is easily 45 minutes to an hour of extra film here.  I mean, it's not even close--there is a moment in "Button" where it does appear the film could end.  And, not only does the film not end, it goes off on a path that gives us literally nothing to augment the story for the final 20-30 minutes.  In addition, the filmmakers chose to tell this story by using a present-tense narration by Daisy's daughter (played by Julia Ormond) while Daisy is dying in a New Orleans hospital in 2004 as Katrina is playing out in real time.  This also adds unnecessarily to the film's girth and even now, I don't know how much was added--dramatically speaking--by telling the story in this way.  (Certainly, if this was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it's safe to say the Katrina angle was NOT in the original.)

I do know what was added:  time.  And, at two hours and 50 minutes (Yac and I stayed through the end credits because there was a long line getting out of the theater), "Button" is a long sit through what is a well-told, thoughtful, incredibly-well-performed but often slow production.  Twice, I heard someone nearby wake up from a guy was even doing the backwards-nodding-of-the-head thing when he woke up from a quiet snore.  This is important because you should know that I am in support of long films if it tells an engaging story.  "JFK" was over three hours long and I had no problems with it; "Pulp Fiction" is two-and-a-half hours but I watch that one all the time in reruns.  Time is only an issue when you've got nothing going on, and in "Button", it has a pretty nice run of interesting bits through the 100-minute mark but then slowly, slowly kills you.

All of that being said, the praise this film will get is legit.  Pitt shines as the lead here, although part of that is the suppression of any emotion by his character; I don't think his Benjamin has a single scene where he either laughs hard, cries, yells, runs, or does anything involving emotion.  This, in part, will lead to people, you know, falling asleep in the theater.  Our lead is the straight man to a number of other great characters.  Swinton is once again fantastic, and Henson plays an almost-stereotyped caricature to perfection, the down-South-black-woman-with-twang.  You half-expect her to have a scene where she says "Well, shucks, Miss Johnson!!" while kicking her heels together in the air, but it never happens.  I thought Flemyng was great in his brief scenes, and nearly all of Benjamin's encounters over his long life are well-performed by bit players.

But, as she almost always is, Blanchett is the film's great star.  Yac and I also agreed on this--neither one of us thinks of Cate Blanchett as a "hottie", but in "Button", she is that hottie.  Wow!  Some of that is the makeup department, but most of that is Blanchett...playing a ballet dancer who eventually retires to a life of dance instruction, Blanchett's performance will nearly guarantee an Oscar nomination and it will once again confirm her status as a top-five female performer in the current film landscape.  I don't know if I think she was ever better in anything she has done in her already great career, and is the great takeaway from this movie.

"Button" is a good movie, despite time and a couple other issues I had (namely, the lack of explanation of Benjamin's fantasy condition, and the death sequence of Queenie).  I think I saw enough to make me feel like the Academy will probably nominate this for a Best Picture nod, but I personally didn't feel the movie was on that level.  Then again, films this year have across the board been less-than-good in 2008, and that might open the door for great things when the Oscars are handed out in February.  No matter what, make sure you hit the bathroom before watching this movie...I was in the theater for three hours and we didn't even get previews.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09