The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
This lavish and long-winded spectacle is curious, all right. Director David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) has all the technical wizards at his disposal to produce a near three-hour fantasy about life, love, and death. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button works around the bizarre gimmick of a man going through the process of aging backwards. It’s loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and the results are befuddling. Benjamin is a handsomely mounted and incredibly expensive work engineered for one purpose: to win Oscars. Benjamin Button is a film that strives for making grand statements and wringing a maximum amount of tears, but it’s also a film that lives more in a series of moments than as a cohesive whole. It’s a fine piece of work but feels overburdened by its urgent desire to be profound.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born on the day the first World War ended in 1918. He is born as a small infant that better resembles an 80-year-old man (in Fitzgerald’s short story he is born as a full grown old man, which means it must have been fun for his mother). Benjamin is aging backwards but his mind is still as it should be, so while he is all wrinkly, arthritic, and covered in liver spots, Benjamin is like other small kids who want to make friends. Benjamin’s father (Jason Flemyng) is horrified by his son’s condition and abandons him at the steps of a nursing center. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) raises Benjamin as her own child and he grows up (down?) surrounded by a colorful cast of elderly residents (one woman remarks that a young-old Benjamin looks just like her ex husband). It is here that Benjamin meets the love of his life, Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett in her older years). She’s enchanted by Benjamin’s condition but she has her youth to live and Benjamin is left behind. Daisy becomes a trained ballerina and tours the world. Benjamin goes on a series of escapades, like working on a tugboat, traveling to Russia and having an affair with a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and discovering his biological father and the family business of buttons. But he’s always been waiting for Daisy, and eventually they “meet in the middle.”
The very nature of the premise means that the movie isn’t going to have many pure, joyful moments. The idea of a romance that needs to take 40 years to connect, and even then has a limited shelf life before they go in their separate aging directions, is beautiful and heartbreaking. Waiting decades for a glimmer of your happiness with your mate, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Benjamin Button explores a similar situation covered by vampire-immortal romances, where you must endure watching your precious loved ones grow old and die. The entire movie radiates with an overwhelming sense of melancholy. The movie manages to find humor and grace amidst its melancholic dirge. The reflections on mortality are ever-present though rarely profound. It may not say anything new or original but it has many things to say about life, death, and the fleeting moments in between. By that notion, the film is structured so that the beginning, where Benjamin is a young old man, it’s more comic and beguiling, then as he and Daisy match up we finally get the pairing we’ve been pining for from the start. The pent-up passion provides great conflict, and then we barely get to enjoy the coupling before reality strikes. The final twenty minutes of the film, where old Daisy cares for old young Benjamin, are incredibly moving and have an indelible symmetry to them, watching an old lady lead a child by the hand.
So then why do I feel so hesitant about fully accepting this movie? The story follows a similar Gump like pattern of incidents but the movie refrains from being mawkish. The main character is mostly passive with little personality; he’s nice but take away his unusual condition and not many folks would remember their time with Mr. Button. Before he gets with Daisy the film feels a bit episodic with the chapters of Benjamin’s life, and they are entertaining asides but they fail to amount to much more. Benjamin Button feels like something important is absent; it’s not cold as others have claimed but it feels, perhaps, remote, stopping just shy from being a full emotional investment by keeping the audience at a somewhat objective distance. This may be Fincher’s own design because Fincher ensures that a film about living life to the fullest doesn’t degenerate into sentimental claptrap. The end hits hard but not as hard as it could if I was more invested in Benjamin as a character. The Hurricane Katrina framing device seems tacked on, but then again the story mostly takes place in New Orleans and Katrina is rather noteworthy, you could say. The “elderly lady recalls her life story” is reminiscent of Titanic, and might not even be necessary though it offers Daisy the ability to look back over her years with added insight. The layers of realistic makeup piled onto Blanchett are impressive, though I worry what would happen if the actress had to go to the bathroom.
Technically, the movie is nearly flawless. The visual effects are astounding, seamlessly allowing Pitt to play the role even as a young child. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a glorious experience to watch but a mildly curious experience to register. The film is so meticulously crafted and it has all the right components of a tragic romance for the ages, but it somehow misses the mark. It’s an entertaining and moving film but it leaves something to be desired. The most resonant moments are also the ones that are the simplest, the ones that lack the window dressing of expensive special effects. I appreciated the film’s expressions of symmetry, but I have the nagging feeling that Benjamin Button both tries too hard and perplexingly doesn’t try hard enough. It keeps audience involvement at a distance, wishing to comment on humanity without embracing humanity. It is difficult for me to articulate what is lacking, because it is an enjoyable if overly long movie, but it falls into the “almost” category of poignant filmmaking. It’s almost a challenging movie, it’s almost an affecting movie, it’s almost a movie worth falling in love with. The film’s story and sensitivity and scope cannot match the technical audaciousness.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on December 17, 2008, in 2008 Movies and tagged book, brad pitt, cate blanchett, david fincher, doomed romance, drama, fantasy, oscars, period film, taraji p. henson, tilda swinton. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.