THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON drew a whopping 13 Oscar nominations, taking home three wins, and came in 21st among the moneymaking releases from 2008. Based on a 1922 short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald, the lengthy, extravagantly produced period piece fantasy was another bright feather in several creative caps, especially those tipped by star Brad Pitt, director David Fincher and co-stars Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson.
In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, ‘Daisy Fuller’, an elderly woman on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital, has her daughter read a collection of letters from a childhood friend. The letters and dual narration tell the strange and amazing, cute and painful, sad and wonderful life & love story of a baby who was born old and grew younger as he aged. The paths of ‘Benjamin’ (Brad Pitt) and ‘Daisy’ (Cate Blanchett) intertwine with a host of characters and settings over 16 different years between 1918 and 2005.
The screenplay by Eric Roth took the germ of Fitzgerald’s magazine-slim whimsy and developed it with Robin Swicord into something with epic sweep but human scale, 166 minutes crammed with period details evoking several eras, charting adventures and romances, family and loss, war and frolic, mystery and acceptance, with Time and Chance as gatekeepers on the journey.
Gorgeously shot by Claudio Miranda (Life Of Pi), it’s remarkably well directed, edited, appointed, costumed, scored (Alexandre Desplat) and cast, with the sinew of brilliant makeup and special effects enhancement coursing through its time span realizations. The actors, one and all, are superb. Pitt perfectly calibrates his characterization to match Benjamin’s mix of innocence and wisdom (call it curiosity), Blanchett elegantly conveys Daisy’s evolution (her deathbed scenes are especially beautifully spoken), and Henson comes off as pure life force.
Along with the magic makeup morphing of Pitt from one age to another (the amazing stunt is making 44-year-old Brad re-inhabit his older younger self), six actors had brief parts playing the fated/cursed/blessed Mr.Button: Robert Towers, Tom Everett, Spencer Daniels, Chandler Canterbury, Peter Donald Badalamenti II and Charles Henry Wyson.
If you can stop clutching your modern era cynicism like its surrender is somehow noble or chic and allow the warmth, gentility and lyricism of this exquisitely wrought journey take you, along with entertainment it may even have the quiet side reward of nudging you to smell those proverbial roses. Graceful and moving, funny and thoughtful, expansive and intimate, tragic and redemptive, it’s a lovely fable.
It won fully deserved Oscars for Art Direction, Makeup and Visual Effects. Equally well-earned nominations went up for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actress (Henson), Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music Score, Costume Design and Sound Mixing.
Six months of shooting in Louisiana and Quebec, the Virgin Islands, Cambodia and India, and many months of toiling over the host of visual effects ran up a tab of $167,000,000. Grosses came to $334,000,000, with at least another $42,000,000 coming in eventually from video sales.
With Julia Ormond (really good, some of her best work), Jared Harris (rollicking), Tilda Swinton (faultless as usual), Mahershala Ali (winning), Jason Flemyng, Rampai Mohadi, Elle Fanning (whipsmart at 8), Elias Koteas, Phyllis Somerville. The daunting task of Production Designer was given to Donald Graham Burt, whose skill has blessed such varying templates as The Joy Luck Club, Donnie Brasco, Zodiac and Gone Girl. Sixty people worked in various capacities doing the makeup, and no less than 459 toiled on all the special effects.