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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Mayershalalhashbaz Ali, Jared Harris, Elias Koteas, Phyllis Somerville, Tilda Swinton, Lance Nichols, Rampai Mohadi, Elle Fanning and Madisen Beaty.

Screenplay by Eric Roth.

Directed by David Fincher.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.  168 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Sometimes a movie is made with an obvious eye towards artistic pedigree.  It is obvious that everyone involved with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certain that they are making a very important piece of filmmaking – from the literary background to the extended length (168 minutes!) to the wistfully tragic tone to the near perfect acting and directing.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes so close to reaching the artistic relevance it intends that you want to give it the benefit of the doubt.  However the film is a stunning, but somewhat flawed enterprise.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald – extremely loosely based, frankly only the title and the very basic premise of the tale survives.

Actually, in certain ways the story of Benjamin Button as shown in this movie has more to do with screenwriter Eric Roth’s previous Oscar-darling script for Forrest Gump.  It tells the story of an exceptional-but-rather-blank man and his one true love played out over the historic sweep and popular culture of the twentieth century.

The basic premise is an intriguing one – Benjamin Button is born with the infirmities and looks of an elderly man and slowly ages backwards – his body growing ever younger as his mind becomes older.

Therefore he is destined to always be an outcast.  As a young man he is infirm and cannot play with his peers.  As an old man he is too virile and lively for the people who are the same age.

The frame of the story is told from recent past, when a terminally ill woman (Cate Blanchett in lots of aging makeup) has her daughter (it’s nice to see Julia Ormond again after several years away from film) read the diary of the title character.  This is done in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina is coming ashore.  Frankly, the whole Katrina subtext – like too many of the symbolic gestures of the script, including a recurring hummingbird and a not-totally-surprising admission of paternity – is flashy but essentially amounts to little or nothing of substance.

The main crux of the story is told in flashback, the life story of the title character (played by Brad Pitt) as told through his words.  We watch as he is abandoned as a baby, grows up in an old-age home (which actually is the ideal place for him), becomes a merchant marine, travels the world and falls for a young girl who grows to be a ballerina (Blanchette plays her from 20 to her 80s.)  The obvious problem is that they are aging in opposite directions, so that they only have a few short years where they meet in the middle in which they can be happy.

The weird thing about Benjamin Button is that he is a nearly entirely passive hero.  Life occurs to him, he does not go out to live life.  People teach him things, show him bravery, seduce him and drop little emotional bombshells and Benjamin just reacts to what is done to him.  Even to say that he is reacting is a bit of a push – it is rare that Benjamin lets anyone inside enough to understand what he is feeling.  He just appears to be a boat against the current – to paraphrase another, more famous work by F. Scott Fitzgerald – struggling silently as he is borne ceaselessly into different directions.

However, if the script is often imperfect, the direction by David Fincher is spot on.  It is a wonder – a near perfect mixture of cutting edge special effects and sharp historical accuracy.  Fincher – whose predilection for rather dark, somber and very concise entertainment in the likes of Se7en, The Game, Panic Room and Zodiac – would not seem to be the ideal artistic choice for Benjamin Button. 

Technically, the film is a complete marvel.  It is a nice touch that Fincher films most of the scenes in the style of their era, but the true masterpiece is Benjamin himself.  From the beginning when you see Pitt’s face on the body of an old man, the effect is seamless and shocking.

This is a sweeping and occasionally corny look at true love and the near impossibility of keeping any type of happiness going over the long haul, but it turns out that Fincher is an inspired choice, precisely for the director’s hard-edged realism and fatalism.  Fincher is able to blunt most of Roth’s sappier tendencies – keeping the film from devolving into treacle even when the script seems to be trying desperately to lead down that road.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: May 3, 2009.


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