The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

benjaminbuttonI 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.

7 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  1. Amy says:

    I agree with every word. I also found (major spoiler alert) the notion that he would leave his wife and daughter when he did to be absolutely absurd. He’s off frolicking in India while his family fares without him. Puhleeze.

    I’ll also go a little stronger than you did, in that I strongly disliked, maybe even hated, the framing device. Just tell the damn story, and don’t leave unexplored the most fascinating aspects of it. This one was a big disappointment.

  2. Clay says:

    Yeah, leaving the family was absurd. I can see leaving if he was 5 years old, but he was still a grown man with many years of adulthood before him.

  3. Kerrie Rueda says:

    I, too, agree completely. Somehow, I enjoyed the film overall and found it haunting days later. But what I found so haunting was Benjamin himself – particularly as the child in an old man’s body, and then in his adolescent years. Once he hit “middle age” and “caught up” with Cate Blanchett’s character, it changed in tone for me. Brad Pitt did a very good job and the effects were fantastic, though.

    Where I am 100% with you and Amy is the framing device. I was NOT a fan and didn’t think it was worth the time they spent on it. I mean, seriously, who didn’t know in the first five minutes how that was going to turn out? It was so predictable and just unnecessary, and I found that quite frustrating.

    Another place I am with you is the cinematography. I commented on it in the middle of the film. It has all the hallmarks of an Academy darling from that perspective and I thought it was a really lovely film to look at.

    Mom, Carlos and I saw this the day after Christmas and while we all liked it enough, we agreed that we probably wouldn’t ever see it again. Too bad, because I thought it would be one of those epics I’d want in my collection…

  4. Dana says:

    For some reason, I never thought of the Gump comparison, and, frankly, I still don’t really see it. The fact thkat he has a southern accent surely isn’t enough to make it Gump. And I don’t see that he was waiting all of his life to have his childhood crush come around and love him back–he clearly lived his life until close to the midpoint without being all that consumed by her, although they clearly always shared a bond and connection. And how were there any more historical events and figures than any story spanning nearly a century would use as demarcations?

    Otherwise, I agree that this film was generally disappointing. The hurricane stuff was silly and the narrative unnecessary. I felt they spent far too much time in the childhood years (where, of course Brad could play looking old), and not enough time in the part that I found far more interesting, which is how you make a relationship work with 2 people heading literally in opposite age directions.His leaving her was absurd, but also a cheat of what should have been one of the more interesting parts of the movie.

    Overall, a disappointment to be sure.

  5. Amy says:

    I neglected to make mention of the Gump comparison, which I totally didn’t notice when I watched the film but found myself fascinated by as I read your commentary. I’m trying to decide what might have served as the feather… maybe the lightning struck old man? 😉

  6. Clay says:

    Yeah, what was with that guy?

  7. coffee says:

    it was a little weird to see an old version of Brad Pitt’s face pasted onto a kid’s body, but i guess that’s why they call it a “curious case”

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