Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button
Cate Blanchett as Daisy
Taraji P. Henson as Queenie
Jared Harris as Captain Mike
Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott
Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button
Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Tizzy
Julia Ormond as Caroline
Elias Koteas as Monsieur Gteau
Every decade deserves its “Forrest Gump” I guess. David Fincher’s adaptation of a little known (and monumentally depressing) F. Scott Fitzgerald story is this one’s. Depending on your point of view, that’s either a damning condemnation or just what the doctor ordered.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born a prematurely old man, but rather than quickly expiring as everyone expects, he keeps getting bigger and stronger and it soon becomes apparent he’s ageing backwards, at which point all connection to the original story ceases. In a piece of none to subtle commentary (and that about sums up the whole film), Benjamin’s very freaked father abandons him on the doorstep of one of New Orlean’s first retirement homes.
Fitzgerald’s story, among other things, was about the oft-made connection between the nature of childhood and old age, and the film version passes no opportunity in doing the same. However, that’s as far as Benjamin’s condition ever gets insofar as it affects his personality. For the most part it passes unnoticed and only is occasionally commented on. And that’s because Benjamin wasn’t born an old man, he was just born looking like one, and that shamelessness is reflected in quite a lot of the rest of the film. Part of that is because Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth are trying to depict Benjamin’s circumstances in a realistic world. They’re not interested in telling a fairy tale, they want to tell a travelogue. And that’s essentially what “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is. Benjamin is born at the close of World War I, and after a copious amount of time is spent with his youth, pounding in the idea of old childhood (and vice versa), he sets out to make his way in the world.
It is without question a wonderful looking film. Fincher is operating at the peak of his powers here. He’s not telling a fairy tale, but he has created a world that’s an ideal–be it frozen Russia, an ocean filled with dead bodies, or rural India–which should give you an idea how his film wanders. It’s constructed as more of a loose set of vignettes, related through Benjamin’s diary (being read in the present day) of different moments. And lots of those moments are fantastic, particularly a nighttime battle between a tugboat and submarine.
The cast is also generally excellent. Pitt has to do some of the hardest work of his career, playing both adult and young Benjamin while lathered in old age makeup, with his head composited onto a doubles body. It’s a testament both to Fincher’s ability and Pitt’s performance that the effect is largely seamless. In fact the performances all around are superb, from Cate Blanchett as the love of Benjamin’s life to the various individuals Benjamin meets during his travels. The two real standouts are Tilda Swinton as a lonely diplomat’s wife and Jared Harris as a bawdy ship captain who always wanted to be an artist.
The problem is Eric Roth’s script, who not coincidentally also wrote “Forrest Gump” (fourteen years ago! has it been that long?). Meandering would be a nice way to put it. He has some pretensions to a novelistic feel, starting with a fable about a clock that runs backwards and various side stories throughout. A lot of them sound good on paper–a meditation on the confluence of events leading up to a car accident–but a lot of them (particularly a recurring image of a humming bird) land with a dull thud. It can be awfully overwrought and the more the film goes on the more obvious it gets.
And did I mention it’s long? I don’t generally have a problem with long movies, if they keep me engrossed. But “Benjamin Button” feels every minute of its nearly three hour running time, and its impossible not to feel like at least a half an hour could have been lopped off. Especially towards the end when director and writer seem to become impatient with details and reduce the last decades of Benjamin’s life to a montage. It feels cheap, especially considering how much time and attention was given to Benjamin’s youth. Or maybe it’s just because the lyrics to “Even Rocky Had A Montage” wouldn’t leave me alone.
By following the length of Benjamin’s life (and then some), Fincher is able to showcase all the different eras of the 20th century, from the roaring ’20s to World War II to the ’60s and on to the present day, as the readers of the diary sit in a hospital in New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. Fincher and Roth are really trying to tell the story of the 20th Century, but they don’t seem to have a clear idea what they want to say about it, just that it happened and should be remembered. Which is something I suppose, but feels more than a little vague.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” just isn’t up to the bar it’s set for itself, largely because of a screenplay that, for all its strengths, lacks focus. There’s a lot to like about it (and a loooot to sit through to get to those moments), and on paper it sounds like it should be great. But it isn’t. It’s still worth your time, but you might want to wait for DVD where you can space out the viewing some.