The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a good movie, whose grasp never quite closes around the great it is clearly reaching for.
Bard Pitt plays Benjamin, who is born old and grows younger. He loves a woman. He meets people. He has adventures. His story ends as all life stories do.
Benjamin Button is not alone. The idea of someone aging in reverse, becoming physically and mentally younger as they grow chronologically older, is not a novel one. At least as far back as Arthurian legends about Merlin, reverse aging has been a mainstay to certain genres of fiction. In this film, no real explanation is given as to why Benjamin is born in the shriveled husk of a hollowed out octogenarian (although baby-sized) and continues to “move in the other direction” as time passes.
The film suggests it may have something to do with a blind clock maker’s masterpiece, a timepiece designed to run in reverse so that it may undo some of the horrors of world war I, but for the most part Benjamin’s condition operates in the heightened reality of magical realism. People he meets just accept his curious malady without asking too many questions, and so should the audience.
The film could have worked just as well if the eponymous character aged like everyone else, and the storytelling device works to add poignancy and thoughtfulness to the movie rather than a pointless gimmick. Without it, the film would feel even more like a retread of Forrest Gump than it already does. Coming from the same writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares more than a few thematic and structural similarities with the earlier film. Both feature an odd social outcast as the main character, spending a lengthy first act on the wacky characters they met as they grew up before chronicling their epic lives. Both Benjamin Buttons and Forrest Gump carry decades-long torches for seemingly unattainable girls next door until such time as the women realize the error of their ways and accept that the men of their dreams were right in front of them the whole time. There is even a hummingbird in Benjamin Button that performs the same symbolic role as the feather in Forrest Gump.
While this film may be guilty of playing a few of the same notes, the feel of the song is vastly different. Benjamin Button is both more lyrical and more wistful than its forebear. The story feels slightly more artificial, in the sense that the narrative hangs on the artifice of Benjamin’s condition and the poetry of seeing a man drift toward youth and irresponsibility even as his mind gets older. The price for this lyricism is the occasional foray into pretentiousness. While more often than not, he takes a light touch, director David Fincher is sometimes guilty of beating a metaphor into the ground. I was worried that the gimmick of Brad Pitt running around in old man make-up and computer-generated images of his altered face would prove too distracting but for the most part they weren’t. The early part of the film, wherein Benjamin is tiny and outwardly elderly has an appropriately eerie vibe but by the time he sets out to sea the off-putting effect has mellowed. What is left is the story of a man’s life.
The biggest complaint I had with the movie was not necessarily its prodigious running time. I’m perfectly happy with long movies. And the story never felt particularly draggy, but the present day story was far too intrusive. The meat of the movie comes from Benjamin’s journal, which a young woman reads aloud to her dying mother as Hurricane Katrina closes in on the hospital. As a framing device its effective (although the presence of the storm doesn’t really add anything and feels decidedly tacked-on). Yet it seems like every few minutes, the central narrative arc pauses while we get a meaningless update on the present day. If some of these momentum-killers disappeared, the movie would be shorter and tighter. They feel like padding.
Fincher is an old hand at directing Pitt, having done so in the seminal Fight Club, and before that in Se7en. They work well together, and Pitt has more dramatic weight on his shoulders this time around since he serves as the movie’s through-line. He must carry the audience from the end of World War I to the nascent 21st century, and although he meets several colorful characters along the way, the story unfolds from his point of view. Cate Blanchett plays his true love. The two leads look very pretty together, and they each give their roles a solid portrayal. They’ve worked together before, and their chemistry is convincing even if Pitt’s accent slips occasionally.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons involves a great deal of travel and all the locations from Murmansk to Manhattan look beautiful, but the heart of the film is in New Orleans and Fincher seems incapable of taking an ugly shot of the city. But for all the strength fo the actors, the talent of the director, and beauty of the story the movie falls flat.
Far from bad but well short of great, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gets:
Three and One Half Creepy Old Man Babies (Out of Five)