Short Version: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a technical masterpiece that plays like a dream in motion – but it’s a dream that drags on just a bit too long.
Screen Rant Reviews The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film adapted from the 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man who is born old and proceeds to age in reverse until his death. The film adaptation takes this interesting premise and stretches it out (way, way, out) into a lengthy meditation on the nature of life, death, and everything human that is crammed in between.
The meditative tone is quickly established at the onset as the film opens on a hospital room in which a dying woman asks her daughter to read to her from the diary of a man named Benjamin Button, hoping that Button’s reflections on the reverse-course of his life will give her some kind of perspective on life in her own final moments. The rest, as they say, is flashbacks. The thing is these flashbacks have the effect of making us feel as though we are moving through a kind of dream remembered. Thank superb director David Fincher for that.
The principle cast is relatively small: Brad Pitt plays the titular character (with the help of some superb F/X and makeup); Cate Blanchett plays Button’s long-sought love, Daisy; and the way underrated Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie. Over the course of the movie some other familiar faces (like Tilda Swinton) come and go, as Benjamin makes his way through life, one adventure at a time. I have no criticisms of the actresses in the film. Blanchett excels a usual, and Henson once again takes what could’ve been a peripheral character and imbues her with light and life (many of the film’s best lines are hers).
The only debatable actor in the ensemble is Pitt himself. While his scenes as young (aged) Benjamin are fantastic, by the time Benjamin is middle aged and Pitt appears onscreen sans the liver spots, the celebrity’s all too familiar face stares back at us, blank as a mask that never really cracks to let even the slightest hint of emotion escape. I understand that there is a very zen tone to the film, but Benjamin shouldn’t have been portrayed as such the zen master. The whole point of the story (we’re told) is that he is as human (ie confused and flawed) as any of us.
The “over-zen” problem doesn’t end with Pitt, either. David Fincher may be my favorite director: his craftsmanship is so ambitious, accomplished, flawless and slick that certain sequences in this film look like paintings in motion that will never fade from memory. Having lauded all that praise, however, problems arise when the director’s technique overwhelms the heart of the story–as is the case, unfortunately, in this film.
Somewhere around hour 2.5 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button loses its heart: Benjamin inevitably gets younger and younger while those around him age and die. The F/X are cool and the climatic moments of Benjamin’s regression are quietly moving, however the emotional impact is left up to Cate Blanchett’s (thankfully able) acting. It is her graying, wrinkling, face that offers the only emotional tether for the audience, as she struggles to adapt her love in a very human way to circumstances that are almost too fantastic to imagine (or watch). And, for all of Ms. Blanchett’s massive talent, regrettably it’s not enough to keep most movie goers from getting antsy for a pee break around hour 2.75.
The other criticism Benjamin Button has received is that it is little more than Forrest Gump with a better F/X budget. This criticism I do not agree with. Gump was a character blissfully unaware of his own place in the course of life and history. Benjamin Button is a character all too aware of his place: an oddity to the rest of the world, yet never feeling anything else but human while ‘looking out of his own eyes.’ And while some critics might see reverse aging as a sort of cheap narrative device, it nonetheless serves to prove the point that no matter which direction we are headed along the spectrum of life and death–no matter which path we are taking– we are all on a journey that ultimately delivers us all to the same fate. It is powerful, poignant, profound and (as my grandmother said to me after) sad. Forrest Gump was just an entertaining story.
Go see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, if for no other reason than the fact that you’re going to be hearing about it for weeks to come as award season approaches. It is a phenomenal piece of cinema, one weighted with an emotionally gripping story. It could have used an intermission, though, and don’t expect Brad Pitt’s name to get tossed into the award categories this year. Just enjoy the film for its crated beauty and let it take you on its journey–it’s worth the ticket price.