David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie that treats its own potentially fruitful premise just as a curious case rather than with great curiosity. Here is the story of a man who literally ages in reverse from being born in an old man’s body all the way to dying as an infant and the filmmakers mostly scratch the surface of observing such a person. That the film’s impeccable technical achievements belie its utterly safe story treatment make it all the more disappointing.
The movie is loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and, considering that one of the adapting screenwriters is Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump, one can easily see that movie’s obvious influences. The difference is that movie actually gave us an insight into Forrest’s mind to view American history through his unassuming, innocent eyes. Because this story of backwards aging inherently contains the folly of disjointing its own narrative flow, however, it needs an even greater level of clarity into its character’s mind to achieve an epic sweep and that is something the movie hardly attempts.
As a result, what we ultimately get is like the Odyssey of the adventures of the titular character, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who is born in 1918 New Orleans, as the tagline says, “under unusual circumstances.” The birth happens immediately after a famous watchmaker loses his son in World War I and builds a clock at a train station that moves backwards, hoping that it will turn back time itself and bring his son back. Instead, it leads to Benjamin being born as a very wrinkled, arthritic old man in a baby’s body.
His mother dies from the laborious childbirth and his horrified father, Thomas (Jason Flemying) abandons him in the footsteps of a nursing home owned by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Despite the initial reluctance of her husband, Tizzy (Mahershalhashbaz Ali), Queenie takes pity on Benjamin and adopts the child as her own. No one expects him to live very long considering the very feeble and ailing status that he is born in and he takes a longer time than most acquiring language and learning how to use his legs. Moreover, due to his old-age appearance, he fits in quite well with others in the nursing home.
Then, at the age of 12, he meets 7-year-old Daisy (Elle Fanning), the girl who becomes immediately fascinated by him and eventually becomes the closest thing to the love of his life. Beyond that, the movie checks off other pivotal events in his life such as fighting in WWII on a tugboat led by Captain Mike (Jared Harris) and then, while having the look of a 67-year-old man, having an illicit affair with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a visiting British trading minister. As time progresses, he and the adult Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who is now a successful ballerina, move in and out of each other’s lives as they deal with the fact that even if they stay together, they won’t exactly be able to “grow old” together as he will age younger in appearance all the way to becoming a baby.
Some of those scenes are, to be sure, emotionally affecting and the movie’s belief in taking the Odyssey approach is that since Benjamin ages backwards while everyone around him ages forward, life is most significant to him in individual moments. That may perhaps be true and was also true to an extent in Forrest Gump due to his low IQ but I kept thinking to myself why is this movie not achieving the emotional critical mass it clearly wants to despite its titular character's age reversal? Then, it dawned on me that (this might sound a little strange) there is really nothing truly distinguishing about Benjamin Button as a person. Yes, there is the occasional voiceover narrating his thoughts but the movie just assumes that he will just act like any other person we meet, only in reverse. Hence, with a lack of personal character development, we are never really treated to the wholly different intellectual and emotional perspective that we should have had.
This also then leads to the larger issue the screenplay by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord completely ignores, which is the concept of nature vs. nurture. The story seems to mostly presume that it is only the biological mindset and appearance of Benjamin that determines his real age (such as how a person brings him to a brothel at only the age of 12 because he looks to be in his 70s, which I still found somewhat creepy). But don’t his growing life experiences based on how long he has lived play a role in his maturity? Wouldn’t it have been more fascinating to see a man trying to live forwards even as he ages backwards? Then what would it really be like for a 60-some year old mind to have the free-wheeling spirit of a younger man or how does a child’s mind retain a lifetime of experiences? The second part of the last question in particular on his belated childhood is almost entirely glossed over with a lazy plot point and one montage of too many in the film that is supposed to be heartbreaking but left me feeling rushed and unmoved.
It is unfortunate that all of this serves as an ultimately less than satisfactory dramatic backbone to some astonishing, jaw-dropping images, which is probably why it took so long until now for Hollywood to make the movie and, in the future, will probably be studied by filmmaking students. The first 30 minutes in particular are truly remarkable in using a combination of visual effects, animatronics, and motion capture to seamlessly graft Pitt’s face into a frail baby’s body and later a 4’ sized one when he is trying to walk from his wheelchair in a church. The makeup of both Pitt and Cate Blanchett in their respective roles is also faultless and David Fincher, being the accomplished visual stylist he is, uses even more of his trademark sepia tones with his cinematographer Claudio Miranda to create a chromatically fantastical yet somewhat melancholic universe.
The actors cannot be faulted either, although, after the overrated Babel, this is the second time Pitt and Blanchett have starred together in a movie with an ambitious premise but unrealized promise. Nonetheless, they are never less than credible acting in a variety of stages in life, particularly Pitt, who certainly makes a committed effort to deal with hours of makeup and imagining the visual effects that will complete the aging illusions. He and Blanchett certainly also share a nice, convincing romantic chemistry within their clearly odd predicaments and the fact that their characters finally do not truly resonate is not the actors’ blame but the screenplay’s. Also worth noting is Taraji P. Henson, who plays really the most vibrant and spunky character in the movie as Benjamin’s adoptive mother.
I know The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is already getting some awards consideration for its technical accomplishments and actors and that is probably just as well (even if the picture as a whole is far from deserving of a nomination). With this cast and production credits, of course they can make a scene work and occasionally glow. But, by the end, it is all superficial because there is no truly original inspiration or idea behind it all. What we are then left is just a predictable, conventional tale and that is the last description I would have wanted to use for a literally time-bending fantasy like this.
Bottom line: Close but no cigar.