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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2008, USA
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Eric Roth (screenplay and screen story), Robin Swicord (screen story), F. Scott Fitzgerald (short story)
Produced by Cean Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson

In the Oxford English dictionary, the definition of ‘whimsy’ does not, sadly, include the phrase “magic realism for the senile.” Nor does it reference the fact that anything whimsical must include a 75% recommended aphorism content, and be read aloud in a combination of southern drawl and numb-tongued slur, like Paula Dean reading Aesop’s fables after a stroke. And, of course, the dictionary lacks an appropriate discussion of folk sayings, flights of fancy, and geriatrics croaking out life lessons amid death rattles.

In fact, the definition of whimsy would be much simplified were it simply to be replaced with a screening The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, director David Fincher’s 2008 Oscar contender. The film is so very charming, balancing its bittersweet moments with quirky affectations, that it comes off more as a recipe for exotic chocolate than a film. But instead of being coated with cocoa dust and cayenne, it stinks like Geritol, Rub A535, and death. This is a retirement home movie, a down-home, apple-pie epic that’s all about wisdom, experience, and everything else grandfathers babble about when plaque clogs their synapses.

But this story of a man who ages backwards is not a bad film, by any means. Fincher’s assured direction keeps what could have been a sleeping pill moving at a brisk pace, despite the fact that the film is longer than most comas. Brad Pitt, who plays a man born a mewling, wrinkled maggot who grows younger as he matures, turns in a capable performance, even if he does seem slightly bemused by the whole premise. Cate Blanchett, as love interest Daisy, is only slightly overcome by her own immense talent. And Taraji P. Henson, as a caricatured black maid who raises Benjamin, has earned herself one of the film’s 13 Oscar nominations, essentially for imparting deep emotional resonance in endlessly repeating “Oh, Lawd!” As well, the cinematography, from Claudio Miranda, creates one of the most beautiful looking films of the year.

Still, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an empty exercise. It doesn’t say anything that a particularly verbose fortune cookie couldn’t impart, and takes considerably longer doing it. The problem is that it’s so contrived, from the plot to the forced charm to the demographic pandering, that begs to be noticed by 50-year-old film critics and Academy voters. Though watchable, and disarming in its own way, it’s entirely too quaint, too obvious, to amuse anyone who doesn’t plagiarize their opinions from O Magazine. But for all its flaws, and all its triumphs, it remains the best definition of whimsy I’ve ever seen.

Al Kratina