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Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a flawed movie. It runs for almost three hours and could've easily run for two. It's filled with bizarre affectations, indulgences, and plot threads which are as frustrating as they are amusing. But you know what? The "amusing" part counts for a lot, and when I left the theater, I was smiling and had a tear or two in my eye. That's what matters, and on those terms, Benjamin Button delivers as pure entertainment.

About that superfluous hour: Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it's all at the beginning. It's unfortunate because for a while there, I was honestly bracing for severe disappointment. During childbirth, Benjamin Button's mother dies. His father (Jason Flemyng), a button-maker battling the advent of the zipper, takes one look at him and promptly pulls a Moses on the reeds, leaving the child in a basket on the nearest doorstep he can find. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) finds him, and raises him at the nursing home where she works. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) requires a lot of special care and attention for, you see, he was born old and shriveled-up, blind from cataracts and with a failing immune system. But as he ages, his body grows younger.

Director David Fincher never really pulls off the set-up. I appreciate the twisted slant he puts on things, and the folksy charm that makes it pop, but Benjamin as an old man infant is kind of disturbing. The CGI and make-up effects are all top notch, to be sure, but seeing a tiny old man acting like a five-year-old with Brad Pitt's face glued on is just unnatural. It's distractingly creepy, especially in a scene where he goes under his bed to talk with Daisy, the young girl who is to become the love of his life (played at age 7 by Elle Fanning, at age 10 by Madisen Beaty, and finally as an adult by Cate Blanchett). If I hadn't known better, I would've thought the movie had just become Big-Budget Dateline.

It's fortunate, however, that we get rid of the awkwardness upfront, because as soon as Benjamin begins to recognizably look like Brad Pitt instead of a little old man with Brad Pitt-like features, this Case starts cracking. The weird psychological disconnect I had with the premise went out the window, and Fincher had me in his hands. Benjamin takes to the sea as part of a tugboat crew, growing progressively younger as he travels all over the world, even getting involved in a riveting World War II skirmish on the high seas.

Perhaps the film's most delightful passage is when Benjamin meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a British spy who's staying at the same Russian hotel as he is. Elizabeth and her husband were only supposed to be there for a few months; instead, it's been 40. She and Benjamin begin staying up all night talking to each other, developing a friendship that suddenly becomes something more; she's Benjamin's first love, and he's her last shot at happiness. The fact that we're able to see the reality at both ends of the spectrum makes it bittersweet.

Eventually, though, it all comes back to Daisy. When Benjamin finally returns from sea, Daisy has matured into a beautiful young ballerina. She remembers him as that little old man, but when she sees him, she just takes his youth at face value: "We always said you were different. Maybe you are." She vows to love him no matter how young he gets, and he vows to love her no matter how old she gets. But of course everybody in the audience knows it'll never work out. By the time he's the stunningly handsome Brad Pitt we all know and love, she's getting wrinkles. The movie never really deals with any resentment on her part, but she's got to be feeling something along those lines, and Blanchett's performance is good enough to fill in the blanks.

Pitt, on the other hand, is perhaps a little too low-key for the material, but he does solid work, and Tilda Swinton can't be commended enough for giving one of the best performances in an already impressive career. The make-up could've been the star here, but the effects are employed tastefully, to better the story. The photography is excellent too, the visual aesthetic looking as if it were inspired by Roald Dahl's darkest imaginings.

Our source material here is actually a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted for the screen by Eric Roth. Roth has written several great films, including Forrest Gump. So if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has some overt similarities — it's a film about a "special" man who sees amazing things and falls in love with a decidedly normal woman, all told through voice-over — I guess it's forgivable. But by all means, this is a David Fincher film through and through, a curious aloofness undercutting most of the sentimentality (the man behind Se7en and Zodiac doesn't do warm-and-fuzzy).

His approach still doesn't account for a clunky framing device involving Hurricane Katrina, but like I said, this movie made me happy. Sitting here hours after the credits have rolled, I'm still laughing at just how damn weird it all was, and how surprisingly poignant. I can't help but admire Fincher's audacity in creating a mainstream studio film with the freedom to be this strange. It's oddly bewitching.

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About Arlo J. Wiley

  • http://robertkblechman.blogspot.com Robert K. Blechman

    While I appreciated the seamless CGI of this movie, I was curiously unsatisfied at the end. Here we have a premise that stands the aging process on its head as we watch a grotesquely old Brad Pitt rejuvenate before our eyes. But so what? What does he discover? What does Benjamin Button’s peculiar affliction tells us about our own mortal coil? The character himself never achieves illumination, and we the viewers come away with nothing more than that it doesn’t matter which way comes first, the stink of the cradle or the stench of the grave.

  • Rosie

    Basically, I thought this was a pretty good movie. The biggest quirk of the film was watching the Benjamin Button character physically grow younger as he ages emotionally.

    But unlike “FORREST GUMP”, the film is strongly resembles, “BENJAMIN BUTTON” seems to lack a sense of history for a movie that is set during a period of nearly ninety years. Well, with the exception of the sequences centered around the two World Wars. And quite frankly, it is too long for a movie with such a slow pace.

    Other than that, it is a pretty good film.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/arlo_j__wiley Arlo J. Wiley

    Robert:

    The one thing I regret not mentioning in my review is what you’ve pointed out: The meaning of the whole concept. That was kind of a big oversight on my part.

    You’re completely right in saying that it doesn’t profoundly illuminate anything about our lives or why we’re here. But I think what Fincher did works well enough, saying that we’re born with wisdom and curiosity, but eventually devolve back into a state of infancy. So, basically, live life now before you return to what you originally were: Nothing.

    Flawed, yeah, but damn it, I just got a weird sort of kick out of this movie.

  • http://ex-conservative.blogspot.com Glenn Contrarian

    Y’know, when we go to the movies we can either sit down and criticize every little mistake while raising existential questions like, “But what does this movie really mean?”

    But I prefer to go and simply enjoy the move, and to me, Benjamin Button was quite enjoyable. You can all criticize if you really must, if it really helps you to feel intellectually superior, but I think that I get more for my money if I just sit back and enjoy.

  • http://www.robertkblechman.blogspot.com/ Robert K Blechman

    Respectfully, Glenn, in this case I couldn’t disagree with you more. The entire premise of Benjamin Button, lifted from F. Scott Fitzgerald, is an intellectual setup. Fitzgerald, in his short story used the premise to comment on social foibles. Eric Roth and David Fincher walk us to the edge of the precipice (with the help of some truly remarkable CGI) and then shrink back again.

    Imagine if Brad Pitt’s character aged normally. What would Roth and Fitzgerald have done differently? What idea or message would we have missed?

    Rod Serling could take a much simpler plot twist and in a mere 22 minutes of air time with a profoundly smaller budget show us the meaning of that twist. Fincher couldn’t find anything in two+ hours of exposition with a multi-million dollar budget.

    I agree that the sheer narrative was delivered with power and feeling. But why did Fincher need to bother with an unexplained and unexploited artificial device? Why not just trust the power of the story?

  • Anonymous

    I am sorry but I have to say that I was sorely dissapointed when I watched this film and luckily I did not pay to see it. I was sooooooo bored that I had to pinch myself to stay awake at times. I was really surprised that it was as slow as it was. It is really unlike Brad to be in a film that is this lackluster. All I kept thinking after I saw this was “wow, what a bomb!” And “they must have paid him a pretty penny just to accept this role, or why else would he have done it?” I think that this really was the worst film I have ever seen him in, really, really slow!!

  • Esther

    I disagree with “it doesn’t profoundly illuminate anything about our lives”.

    My take-away is that despite our physical frailties or limitations, our spirit and love is the strongest tool we need to forge forward and pursue what we envision as happiness. It brings to light that an aging body does not mean an aging spirit/soul. Also, in these times, when love seems to be so superficial, we see that deep romantic love can transcend the physical.

    The one thing I did feel was played out poorly, was his reaction to his mother’s death. That should have been more profoundly depicted given she was his rock and provided everything he needed to thrive.

  • Sue

    I thought the movie was mind provoking. What a concept to go backwards. I had to think, which way is worse. Starting young and aging or starting old and going backwards. It would be nice to have the wisdom when young. I really enjoyed it, and didn’t know 3 hours had gone by. I would tell friends to go see it.

  • michael

    There is MUCH meaning in this story. I cried at times throughout, wondering later why did certain scenes affect me so emotionally. To be born, young of mind, but looking old — learning life’s first lessons in a nursing home, where all the people you attach yourself to, diem and that is the character’s normal view of life, causes Benjamin to intuitively discover at a young age before he is able to intellectually deal with it that love and life are fleeting, impermanent, and ultimately tragically burdensome. He sees it in his young life, feels it passionately in his mid life, and has to escape from it as he ages into a child. Extremely thought-provoking. The movie washes over you like a tide on the beach, taking time to sink in.

  • Allieta

    1) very strange
    2) no life moral except a deppressing one that we should do what we want before we become nothing again
    3) very strange again
    4) MAKE UP AND FILMING AND EFFECTS WAS INCREDIBLE
    5) they should have just skipped to the sexy part of brad pitt
    6) strange for the third time at the end of the move my thoughts were What in the NAME???