Sunday, January 11, 2009

Curious, indeed

By Tony Buchsbaum

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the year's best films...and maybe its best film. Beyond all the special effects, which transform Brad Pitt from an aging infant to a young octegenarian, the film is an elegy to all the things that make New Orleans New Orleans. Filmed primarily in the city, the film is rich with its colors and smells and its lingering sense of ghosts lurking around every corner. The people Benjamin meets throughout the film, at least those who pass away during its 2-hour, 45-minute running time, aren't ever really gone. They remain with Benjamin and provide his life's frame, a base he never quite takes his foot from. I can tell you, as a native of that city, that this is precisely what's so alluring about it. Death and history and ghosts do lurk; they're a lush background to everything, from jazz to food to Mardi Gras. Death makes the city--and the film--undeniably, even enviably, rich.

The film brings this to life as no other film I can remember. It is a stunningly aware film: aware of its surroundings, its import, and its theme. Yet given all its effects, it's somehow, miraculously, not aware of itself. It's a story well told, with actors who know they're serving the material and vice versa.

One of the elements that hold the film together is the wonderful, gentle score by Alexandre Desplat. The 2-CDset includes much of the score itself, along with many of the songs used in the film. The second CD features a collection of jazz and blues and even snippets of dialogue. But here, the score's the thing. Building slowly, delicately, it comes across as something almost out of a dream. One of Desplat's other notable scores, for Birth, is echoed here, particularly the innocence that seems to be woven through that score. Makes sense, since Benjamin Button is a film about innocence and its lasting effects on life. How wonderful, to remain innocent even as life itself conspires to rob you of it. In many ways, this is what the film and the score are saying. I recently heard someone say we begin in diapers and end in diapers, and years ago someone I know asked how we can ever be ready for anything. After all, how can one know what it is to be 13 when one is only 12? But even more than diapers, we begin and end in innocence, with everything we experience new and shiny and fascinating.

Desplat accomplishes this with themes tied together with a time-counting motif, which helps to move Benjamin's life forward/backward. Childlike music follows Benjamin's discovery of life as a young boy and intertwines with lush, tender themes for his discovery of life through both death and his abiding love for Daisy (the luminous Cate Blanchette). The result is a mature, highly effective musical work that enhances the film and stands alone. The sections in which Benjamin and Daisy finally find themselves as the center of their lives (and, at last, truly compatible) are breathtaking, all the more so since we know that soon enough she will be older and he younger. In the worst sense, they are ships passing in an all-too-brief night. Though their love can never die, their relationship must, and the ends of their lives are twisted with ironies as painful as the worst arthritis.

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