‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ movie review: Brad Pitt in Fincher curiosity

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a strange film that takes a strange premise – the titular character goes through life aging backwards, born an old man and ending up an infant – and completely ignores any logical, farcical, satirical or other implications that this premise might bring.

You see, the aging is merely window dressing: Ben Button might have almost any other ailment, real or fictional, and the film would play out the exact same way. Given that screenwriter Eric Roth has written both films, the connection has been made before, but Benjamin Button is far too close a narrative to Forrest Gump for comfort.

Not that Forrest Gump is a bad film. And certainly, neither is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But I am unsure if the movie is great, or merely good. It’s strangely affecting, and has a real poignancy in that old-fashioned Hollywood way.

And the craft is flawless: the aging effects, the period detail, the acting. The film is neither successful as an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story it is (very) loosely based upon, nor as an examination of its intriguing premise, but it doesn’t try to be those things, either. In New Orleans, on the eve of the First World War, a wealthy businessman’s wife dies in childbirth; the child is a grotesque infant whom the father soon abandons at the doorsteps of a retirement home.

Taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a caregiver at the home, the baby is diagnosed with a variety of maladies that affect the elderly and given little time to live. But live he does, and it soon becomes apparent he’s living in reverse, as he quickly transforms into an 80-something-year-old man. He grows up in the retirement home, watches those around him perish, meets a young girl named Daisy and the two share some kind of connection.

When he gets old enough, Benjamin (played by Brad Pitt, a variety of other actors, prosthetics, and CGI effects) sets out to live his life as normally as possible. While he’s initially much younger than he looks, soon he’s close enough to share his life with Daisy (now played by Cate Blanchett) before becoming much older than he looks. But the film isn’t really about Benjamin; like Gump, it’s more about the events that occur around him and the interesting people he meets along the way.

And everything is narrated on Daisy’s deathbed, as her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin’s diary to her and Hurricane Katrina swells up around them, in scenes that add little to the story and make this 166-minute film feel even longer.

Late in the film we see a montage of the old (young) Benjamin travelling the world, living and working in various countries, and we can’t help but ask: how does a lifetime of memories affect the passion and vigor of this young man’s body? The movie never delves into the character of Benjamin Button, never gets inside his mind, and these and other questions are left unanswered.

What does the young (old) Ben think when he meets Daisy? In the film’s most touching scene, when an age Daisy cradles an infant Benjamin, she notes “he looked at me, and he knew who I was.” But what did he think of that? The film ends with a heartfelt message on the nature of identity (“Some people are…”), but who was Benjamin Button? He’s a cipher in his own movie.

The main theme of Benjamin Button seems to be the imminence of death and living life to the fullest. In an early scene, Ben asks an elderly woman “what would you say if I told you I was growing younger as I aged?” She replies, “Well, I’d feel sorry for you, because you’d have to see all your friends die.” That’s all well and good, but what exactly does it have to do with reverse aging? Don’t we all grow old and see our friends and loved ones die anyway?

While part of me wants to respect the movie that screenwriter Roth has attempted to make, I also have a sense that he doesn’t quite care for or understand its central conceit. CGI and makeup effects, which mostly involve aging Pitt or pasting his face onto other bodies, are technically flawless but frequently call attention to themselves; I often found myself wondering what was used (or if anything was used) to make the actor look so good.

Acting is outstanding all around, and colorful supporting performances – though no one sticks around long enough to really make an impression – frequently keep the long film watchable. Pitt, however, has been overpraised as the blank slate Ben Button, though he certainly deserves credit for his physical commitment to the role.

Fincher is one of the best directors working in Hollywood; he’s made two films in the last fifteen years that are already considered classics (Seven and Fight Club), and that doesn’t even include his best, 2007’s Zodiac, which will get its recognition soon enough.

He never quite shines in Benjamin Button, though his direction is perfectly workmanlike; there are no remarkable sequences like the Zodiac‘s overhead taxicab shot or the time-lapse Transamerica construction (among many others), outside of a brief chaos theory rundown leading up to a car accident, which has only a strained connection to the rest of the film.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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