INSIDE ‘THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON’ – by Reed Johnson
In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” time doesn’t just slip away. It surges like a tsunami, swamping cities and washing aside human lives like so much Mississippi Delta topsoil. It rolls backward and forward like a movie projector, un-spooling the tale of a man whose peculiar fate is to age in reverse, starting his life as a wrinkled old codger and ending it as a newborn babe.
So powerful is time’s presence in the film that it almost becomes a character, as does the sepia-toned city of New Orleans, where much of the action takes place. Thoughts about time and mortality left a deep mark on many of those connected with the project, including director David Fincher, screenwriter Eric Roth, producer Kathleen Kennedy and Brad Pitt, who stars in the title role.
“It’s not about a life lived forward or backward, it’s about a life lived well,” says Kennedy, who devoted many years of her life to bring “Benjamin Button” to the screen over a Greek chorus of studio skepticism. “It forces you to confront the choices that you’ve made along the way.”
Very loosely based on a fable-like 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Paramount/Warner Bros. co-production, slated to open on Christmas Day, is first and foremost an epic romance about star-crossed lovers whose overlap in each others’ lives is achingly brief. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Like a man with a medieval spell upon him, Benjamin starts his life at age 80 on Armistice Day, 1918, and goes on to live through many of the highs and lows of the so-called American Century. During the course of the film, Pitt is transformed from a creaky octogenarian to a strapping seaman to a dashing world adventurer able to win the heart of his longtime flame, Daisy Fuller ( Cate Blanchett), a ballerina who first meets Benjamin when she’s a precocious child and he’s a virginal elder.
Playing an American Everyman with a grave-to-cradle character arc sounds daunting. But People magazine’s two-time “Sexiest Man Alive” says he was fascinated to see himself stooped and shriveled — with the aid of several diminutive body doubles and some highly sophisticated CGI effects.
“I was actually quite intrigued to see where it might be heading,” Pitt says, adding that he “got to have some say” in exactly how decrepit he would appear on screen.
“I doubt time and gravity will be as kind as I was to myself,” he says with a smile. “It just made me think about the ticking clock. Am I in mid-life? Am I halfway there?. . . . Do I have 10 years, five years? And so what are those moments going to be that I do know I have, which is now?”
Fincher, who previously teamed with Pitt on the crime thriller “Se7en” and the cult film “Fight Club,” sees Benjamin as a “witness” who is “purely present” in every moment of his long life. The key to the strength of Pitt’s performance, he believes, is that the actor taps into that same quality.
“If you go with [the movie], I think the reason that you go with it is because, if you can imagine such a thing, I think Brad somehow manages to be an Everyman, which is on the face of it just a ludicrous notion,” Fincher says, alluding to Pitt’s ubiquitous mass-media persona. “It’s a beautiful performance. I think it’s as good as he’s ever been.”
Kennedy says that when she, Fincher and Roth were mapping out the movie, they began talking about common experiences: raising children, losing loved ones. When he began writing the film, Roth’s mother was dying and during rewriting his father passed away, all of which shaped the film.
Roth also cites the attacks of Sept. 11 with giving him “a deeper sense of mortality” and “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion’s memoir about losing her husband. “She said that you have to go to this land of grief, whether you want to or not, and go experience grief. Pretty amazing idea.”
Audiences familiar with Fincher’s past work may be struck by the delicateness of feeling in the new movie.
“He’s had this reputation, ‘the prince of darkness,’ because of the subject matter that he’s done,” Pitt says. “When he took this on it was a bold move. Because I know Finch the father, who’s tirelessly devoted to his daughter, I know Finch the son, who walked his father through death for a good year. And that so informed the story — with Eric, of course, who’s had similar experiences as a father and a son.”
Roth’s screenplay offers a kinder, gentler take on Fitzgerald’s Proustian parable, which is a whimsical, somewhat caustic yarn about how the serious-mindedness of the Civil War era was gradually usurped by the frivolousness of the dawning Jazz Age. “Benjamin Button,” the movie, is basically a love story about how two souls can intersect in spite of wars, accidents and misleading outward appearances.
“We get to meet all sorts of people along the way, and it’s like they all sort of inform us or repel us or whatever it is,” says Roth.
He acknowledges some similarities between Benjamin’s story and “Forrest Gump,” which earned Roth a 1994 Oscar for adapted screenplay. “But I think this is a much different movie,” he says. “Not that I’m knocking the other one, [this] is a deeper movie.”
The film can be read on some levels as an allegory of America in a time of profound transition. Bathed in rich, dark colors by director of photography Claudio Miranda and wrapped in a tender, yearning atmosphere, the film finds a stirring visual symbol in New Orleans (a switch from Fitzgerald’s original Baltimore setting).
Like Benjamin, the Crescent City is depicted as a wondrously exotic creature, spawned by a time and place that are in danger of vanishing forever.
As the movie opens, Daisy is lying in a hospital bed, revealing a hidden chapter of her life to her daughter ( Julia Ormond). Outside, Katrina is lashing the city, and the audience senses that the destiny of the characters and the awful fate that befell New Orleans in the fall of 2005 are somehow entwined.
Pitt, who has become deeply involved in efforts to rebuild New Orleans through a foundation he operates with producer-financier Steve Bing, calls the decision to shoot there “absolutely serendipitous. Suddenly, it just gave it a whole new gravitas. It gave it this pulse,” he says. “There’s something timeless about New Orleans to begin with. And it’s a place of mystery and magic where you could believe something like this could happen.”
In the end, “Benjamin Button” affirms that mere mortals can’t arrest time’s flow any more than they can hold back a hurricane. Yet the movie’s intricate mingling of themes of mortality and regeneration, fate and love, also suggests that it’s a minor miracle simply to be alive.