Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was one of my most anticipated releases of 2008 due to one simple factor: David Fincher. The man is a master of the art of direction and two of his films (Se7en and Zodiac) place among my favourite films of all time. When I heard that Fincher was going to be directing the big-screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, I knew instantly that it would have to be amazing. Well, I was mistaken.

Button stars Brad Pitt as the titular Benjamin, a man who is born old and ages backwards. He is born on the day that the Great War ends. His mother passes away during his birth, and his father - angered by his wife’s death by a baby who looks like something of a monstrosity - drops the baby boy off on the stoop of a retirement home. Here, a black woman named Queenie takes him in, names him Benjamin, and raises him in the old folks’ home.

The film follows Benjamin’s entire life as he ‘grows down’ from elderly child to infant senior. He goes out to sea, gets caught up in World War II, and eventually comes back home to New Orleans, and this is where the first real problem of the film begins to show: There just isn’t much to the story. It is in no way epic, no matter how much Fincher or its screenwriter, Eric Roth, would like to think so. There are many gorgeous panoramic shots of the setting, sunsets, and the sea, all meant to enhance the perceived scope of the film. Ultimately, though, a majestic vista is no surrogate for a strong plot, and there is not enough storyline here to warrant such treatment.

I place much of the blame for the film’s failure on Roth’s screenplay. Fitzgerald’s original story is light, satirical, and tends to play off of the absurdity of the circumstances; conversely, the film removes much of the story’s humour, which to me seemed quite odd. I don’t necessarily need a film to adhere to its source material for me to enjoy it, but in this case, the film seems to excise the very element that made the short story so enjoyable, the result of which is a ploddingly-paced film with a microscopic plot that is somehow stretched to a 2 hour, 40 minute run time. Eric Roth is famous for writing Forrest Gump (a film to which the press have compared Button), but that film was often light-hearted, certainly adventurous and ostensibly filled with a great variety of episodic events; it is surprising, then, that this film lacks all of the whimsy and wonder present in Gump, especially considering the rich potential of its premise.

Obviously, the other culprit is Fincher; as much as I love his work, I see now that he does not possess the same ability to convey sentimentality and emotion that a director like Spielberg does. Fincher’s films have been dark, bleak affairs, examining the more unpleasant aspects of human nature. While it’s nice to see him attempt to branch out and test his abilities, this film clearly required something too different of him. The visuals by themselves are spot-on and the special effects are extremely impressive, but without substance or purpose they are meaningless eye-candy. Fincher never finds the proper emotional tone; it is often too pensive or quiet and, save for a few moments, the film takes itself far too seriously in justifying its premise. Also, Fincher should have had the good sense to cut the unnecessary framing device from the story: It may have been in the screenplay, but it didn’t need to be in the film. Without it, the film would likely have benefited from a quicker pace and a shorter run time.

The aforementioned framing device takes place in New Orleans, 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina is approaching the coast. It is centered on a character named Caroline reading the diary of Benjamin Button to her dying mother, Daisy. Daisy is Benjamin’s main love-interest throughout the film. They cross paths numerous times and are in love with each other from a very young age. Their love story is meant to be the glue that holds the film together, much like the Forrest/Jenny relationship in Forrest Gump, but due to poor scripting and direction, their love never hits home quite like it should. As I see it, the problem with their love story stems from the biggest failure of the film: Benjamin simply isn’t an interesting character.

Really. The only thing that differentiates Benjamin from the other characters in the film is the way he looks. Though he ages backwards on the outside, this doesn’t really make him much different on the inside, although he does seem to be wiser than most are at an earlier age, which is likely due to his growing up around octogenarians. Mostly, Benjamin’s depth of expression is relegated to longing stares and inane conversations with others, revealing little space for the audience to connect with him as a human being. He is a good person, but outside of his strange deformity, not of much note. When the arc involving Daisy comes into play, it holds very little weight because it is hard to see what about Benjamin she is so drawn to.

The acting in the film is fine; Pitt is more than acceptable as Benjamin Button, but his performance never touches upon the same level of inspiration he found in either Se7en or Fight Club. Cate Blanchett is quite good and completely seductive in many scenes; if it is hard to wonder why Daisy is attracted to Benjamin, it is easy to see why he might be attracted to her. However, the most interesting character in the film is Elizabeth Abbot, portrayed by Tilda Swinton; her and Benjamin have an affair in Russia and their relationship appears to be built on a dynamic of mutual understanding which Benjamin does not appear to share with anyone else, including Daisy. Swinton is fantastic in the role and if it wasn’t for her and her character, that section of the film would have likely been an arduous experience. Another notable cast member is Taraji P. Henson, who plays Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie. She expertly brings great warmth as well as endless compassion for Ben and everyone else around her to her role; she comes across as so authentically sweet and kind that I almost wish she was my own mother. I last saw Henson in Hustle & Flow, wherein she brought the same soothing energy to the screen. Current rumblings about a possible Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress are certainly not uncalled for and I can’t wait to see the next film whose screen she graces.

While I did not care for the framing device used by the film, I did like one part of it: The film begins with a story that, seemingly, is unrelated to the main plot. It tells of a clockmaker (played by Elias Koteas) whose son is sent off to fight in World War I. While making a clock for the train station, he learns of his son’s death in Europe. At the clock’s unveiling, it is revealed that its hands have been engineered to turn backwards, the symbolism of which is meant to represent the wish of that generation to turn back time and reclaim the lives of the many young men who were lost in the war. The scene is short and beautifully poignant; it is the only time I felt that the film addressed death powerfully and realistically through the eyes of the living. The sequence is also beautifully shot and realized and is one of the few points in the film where the cinematography truly works to add depth and compliment the substance present. It’s unfortunate that the film never again matches the beauty and magical realism of this opening scene.

Benjamin Button will go down as one of my most disappointing films of the year alongside Burn After Reading and Quantum of Solace. The performances are fine and the film is superficially attractive, but aside from some early hints of brilliance and a few wonderful scenes scattered throughout, the film does not deliver; it has a high gloss that that creates the illusion of substance, but when the layers are peeled back, there is little in the way of meat to find. For those hoping that Fincher would follow up Zodiac with yet another masterpiece, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is truly a sad sight to see. It had all the components in place to be the best film of the year, but instead, it is a film that probably doesn’t even warrant a viewing.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. A truly sad sight to see? Hmm, I wouldn't have gone that far. In fact, I liked the movie a fair bit. As long as you found Benjamin Button more disappointing than Quantum of Solace I'll still be fine with your review.

  3. I think Benjamin Button is a better film, but it is ultimately more disappointing than QoS.

  4. I agree with you on almost all the points mentioned. I think the films main problem is that you go into it expecting to be blown away. It wont do that. It doesn't rewrite Cinema, and it doesn't change how we look at the world around us. The story doesn't deliver quite the punch it should, and the backwards aging is never properly addressed, but there are enough individual things such as certain performances and story arcs and this reoccurring bit about being struck by lighting to make the film enjoyable. It's certainly not bad, not great maybe, and perhaps disappoints on some levels, but is worth overall. It's not high art, but I have seen much worse.

  5. Cate Blanchett with a southern accent FTW; but Benjamin Button kept dragging on, always pausing dramatically on Brad Pitt's face, a lot like Meet Joe Black, FTL