I have mixed feelings about this film — much of it is very powerful and affective but just as much of it is borderline lousy. Ultimately I can’t help but see it as a failure, but it’s one of those films that makes you wish its creators could get another shot to make the wonderful film that was within their grasp.
From a special effects standpoint, the film is peerless. Through some combination of digital imagery, makeup and black magic, the filmmakers have managed to seamlessly render Brad Pitt as everything from an 85-year-old man to a 17-year-old kid. It’s astounding what they pull off here, and all the more impressive for being completely organic to the film — there’s nothing showoff-y about the effects, they’re just what was required to tell this story.
(Mild spoilers follow, major spoilers in the comments)
As for the story… it’s basically a rewrite of Forrest Gump with a lead character who is chronologically, rather than mentally challenged. The screenwriter of both films, Eric Roth, may as well have started his first draft of Button by doing a search and replace of the names in Gump. You have a slow-talking Southerner who spends much of his life waiting for his childhood crush to come around and love him back; encounters with historic events and figures; the friendship of a colorful ship’s captain; a doting mother who imparts life wisdom… everything but the feather.
While the Gump parallels are glaring, they don’t necessarily detract from the film. Brad Pitt’s winning performance as Benjamin, along with strong supporting work and lovely cinematography, keep his scenes interesting and resonant.
Where the film goes off the tracks a bit is in the scenes featuring Cate Blanchett. This is particularly true of the framing device that has an elderly Blanchett on her death bed sharing Benjamin Button’s story with her daughter. I have never been a fan of bookend scenes (they practically ruined Saving Private Ryan) and here they are distracting and superfluous. The film runs nearly three hours, and 45 minutes of that time could have been trimmed by scrapping this narrative conceit.
It’s particularly annoying that these scenes take place in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina churns in the Gulf of Mexico. Roth clearly knows nothing about hurricanes, as the Katrina in this film is alternately thought to be no threat at all and an immediate danger to the city over the course of a couple of hours. I suppose he wanted to use the hurricane as a symbol of unyielding nature, but it’s a mistake.
Ultimately, my biggest problem with the film is that it starts to tackle a provocative theme but instead turns into a typical love story. It’s an interesting idea that aging in reverse, as appealing as that might sound to those who feel their bodies beginning to fail, is ultimately no respite from time’s merciless march. As Button grows older (and therefore younger), he loses the ability to speak and care for himself… just as many do in normal older bodies. One of the film’s most powerful images is the elderly Blanchett cradling her infant husband in her arms — you can imagine him just as helpless had he aged the other way.
But the love story built around this fascinating concept is typical Hollywood blah, and far too much time is dedicated to it. I was more interested in Button’s relationship with his mother (played beautifully by Taraji P. Henson) and with a lonely woman he meets while overseas (another oddly fascinating turn by Tilda Swinton).
I imagine The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be nominated for plenty of Oscars next week, and it certainly deserves all the technical ones. It has the scope, pedigree and box office success of an Academy favorite. But it’s a sadly failed opportunity possessing only frustrating glimmers of the work of art it might have been.