December 31, 2008

REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (A-)

As I've mentioned in my Reel Life installments, the best material for movies often comes from the simplest of stories. Though obviously a work of fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from 1921, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", is a good example of such high-potential material. The set-up is simply this: Benjamin Button ages backwards. No explanation, no crazy twists, just leave the rest for the reader to interpret.

Or to Eric Roth, the Forrest Gump screenwriter who adapted "Button" for the (surprisingly) first ever film based on the story, and didn't take many risks in departing from Gump's Oscar-winning formula (here, instead of "You never know what you gonna get," it's "You never know what's coming for ya."). Directed by David Fincher (Zodiac), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a wonder to behold for several reasons.

For starters, Fincher's vision of early 20th-century New Orleans is enchanting. I'm always one to be behind the curve on things, and it didn't strike me until mid-way through this movie that nearly all of Fincher's films look as if they were filmed on the same sound stage: Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac. There is a grittiness, a blue steely look that he has mastered, and it comes through again in Benjamin Button even if the color hue has changed from blue-gray to gold. Every detail on the screen is carefully created; the gaslamps, the snowflakes, the fog and the shadows have as much presence as the characters. More than distract, the lighting and cinematography draw you in and allow you to just sit, study, and savor the images, as if in a museum.

Which is not to say that the humans don't grab you as well. Reteaming with Fincher for the first time in nearly a decade, Brad Pitt brings to the table perhaps his most ambitious performance to date as the title character. Nothing against the sexy hardbody Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Troy) or the goofy dumbbell Pitt (Snatch, Burn After Reading), but I'm really starting to like the "anti-Pitt" Pitt (Babel, The Assassination of Jesse James...) - the one that doesn't inhabit so much of the screen, whether voluntarily or accidentally. Never has Pitt had to express so much with his eyes than in Benjamin Button, and he excels largely because he realizes this - and he doesn't try to out-Gump Tom Hanks.

Speaking of Gump - though Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading) are predictably impressive, neither has much material to work with here, and neither is as memorable as Robin Wright Penn's Jenny Curran Gump. As I haven't read Fitzgerald's story, it's unclear to me whether the romantic angle was played up for the film. If so, consider it an ambitious failure. Either due to the increasingly annoying cuts to the present day or the mere fact that neither actress appeared to have much on-screen chemistry with Pitt, the most glaring problem in Button is that the love story isn't very moving, at least not consistently so.

More emotional juice may have been squeezed out of the relationship between Benjamin Button and his father (Jason Flemyng) or adoptive mother (perfectly played by Taraji P. Henson), but alas, our time with them is disproportionately short. Of course, time is of the essence in a story like this, and telling a man's life story from beginning to end, or rather end to beginning, doesn't allow for many detours.

A little boy learns to walk for the first time...

In the end, Benjamin Button is possibly more cryptic than it is "curious". Fincher's cloaked production style presents it as more of a dream than it should be, which enriches the cinematic experience but partly weakens our ability to access the profound philosophies inherent in such a tall tale. Moreover, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is so long that, like all great dreams, you have to almost sit and ponder it to remember the best parts (repeated viewings may help, and I'm fully expecting Button to live longer than its time in the theater). But it's also captivating and thought-provoking, especially for those who look at life's "big picture". Forrest Gump may have had more whimsy and it may have even been a better movie (not forgetting that it touched on a number of social issues where Benjamin Button took a pass), but for those who like their films to have a little more mysticism, elegance and intellectual potency, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be enthralling.

Writing - 8
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 45/50= 90% = A-


  1. Beautiful review, which pretty much sums up my own reactions to the film, which is indeed thought-provoking and mysterious. I agree this film will probably rise in estimation with repeat viewings. I hope to get my own essay up this weekend (i have been like everyone else occupied this past week) but it won't be far from yours in summary judgement. It's a long film, and the middle section might not work for everyone, but it doesn't violate the spirit of the work. At the end of the day it's a moving film. I agree with you on Ms. Henson by the way, she's excellent. I'll have more to say in a few days, but great job writing this and posting it for New Year's.

  2. I thought it was a great movie and I liked Pitt's character as a little old man. I agree that the relationships didn't seem too natural though it's crazy and fascinating to think of a relationship that literally lasts almost a lifetime between the two sides involved.

    Happy New Year Daniel and congrats on your Star Tribune gig!

  3. I don't know what it is with me, but I am just really underwelmed by all these end of the year "big films" - Valkyrie, Doubt, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and this one. I feel patronized by their importance.

    That being said, I couldn't really find major fault with Benjamin Button, but I also couldn't find anything to extraordinary about it either. I'm no fan of Zodiac either, feeling that Fincher's impeccable form follows facile function.

    On a minor note, I did feel like once Benjamin was Pitt's approximate age, and the make up and character acting fell away, he became oddly contemporary and out of place to the time he was supposed to inhabit. Images of him on his motorcycle or in his sailboat could have been ripped from US Weekly.

    Here's another one I'm sure I won't get to, and I hope you don't mind me using your review and blog as a place to reflect...

    Happy New Year to you Daniel!

  4. I'm seeing this today, hope I enjoy it. Happy New Year!

  5. I was quite underwhelmed by this film. That said, you have written an "enchanting" review yourself, Daniel. Very well done, as always!

    For those who felt similar to my own response, perhaps they would like to take a look at my review. I agree with Kathie, who might like to take a look at my review. Essentially, I thought Fincher's style and tone were ultimately wrong for the whimsical story.

    Eric Roth's screenplay has some significant problems, one of which was that it kept saying the same thing in roughly the same way, over and over. And Fincher didn't supply the spark that would be necessary to fully bring this story to cinematic life. What worked in Zodiac so well fails him here, mainly his insularity and minute obsessiveness, which renders what Roth's screenplay sets as an epic as something rather one-note.

    Of course, I could be wrong! :)

  6. Thanks, Sam. It's true that the middle of it will test people's patience (even mine, admittedly). Eventually I just gave in to it, as when reading a great book. Watching the trailer for the first time yesterday brought back a flood of images. I do expect this to get a little better each time, as with almost all of Fincher's movies.

    Samsak - thanks and Happy New Year to you! I think I liked Pitt in his older (younger) years, too. He wasn't really talking, just observing the world like little babies do. That was brilliant.

    Haha, Kathie. "Patronized by their importance". Yeah I can relate to that most Decembers, though this year I've learned to temper my expectations a little bit, accepting that the best movies of the year aren't necessarily the last ones to be released. I've only seen the first three of the four you mention, but none of them have even earned an "A", which must mean something.

    I welcome your reflections here! It's funny that you mention Pitt's appearance. I recently saw (don't ask me where, I totally avoid tabloids) some criticism of his fashion sense. Somebody was complaining that for has many millions of dollars he has, the guy attempts to dress like a starving artist. Anyway, that has little to do with his look in Button, but I know what you mean about that motorcycle image.

    As far as Fincher goes (nice alliteration there, by the way), I would agree that he has a tendency to focus too much on the "look" of his movies, even though for the most part I think the projects he chooses specifically lend themselves to artistic design (it's not like he's directing an romantic comedy).

    I look forward to your review, Nick, and best wishes for the new year as well.

    And Alexander, thanks for the cheer. I think we're kind of saying the same thing about Fincher's dark style. Was it completely inappropriate here? Some people might think so. In the end, I gave it a pass and appreciated Pitt's understated performance, plus I just found the idea of the character really interesting. Which is not to say that somebody else (or another screenwriter) couldn't have made a better movie.

    This could actually be an interesting movie to experiment with since it's so simple. Give it to a bunch of directors and see what they do with it. The results could be fascinating.

  7. An "ambitious failure." Well-put.

    Although I likewise found "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" enchanting and charming, it did seem a little lightweight to me.

  8. Right, mostly in the romantic and introspective areas, which were ripe for further exploration. Seemed like Pitt was observing his transformation WITH us, and we never got inside his head. What was he really thinking? Again, this may have come out more with a different screenwriter or director, but what would be gained might not make up for what was lost without Fincher. It's a tough trade-off.

  9. Yeah, I loved it. It's not a film that would stand up against intellectualising, and its a shame that so many people are interested in doing that. Their loss.

    Out of all the performers, Henson was my favourite. Pitt, to me, was just fine - he didn't do much at all, he didn't even shade in the complexities of his character. It was understated, but it should have been deeper than just that.

    There were some stupid little things that bugged me, but overall it was a wonderful movie that has a lot to say without being pretentious; which is rare for a lot of the Oscary movies late in the year.

  10. Can't read this yet, but I'm seriously happy to see the high grade you've given it. I was beginning to think I'd be let down by it...

  11. I'm so far behind with everything right now it's not even funny. I still have to catch up on a whole lot of your reviews, Nick.

    Interesting to me that Henson stuck out to you. I'm glad, I'm just surprised that she captured you more than Blanchett or even Swinton (her characters are starting to feel the same a lot of the time now). Pitt, yes he was understated, and while I like that, maybe it was TOO understated for you. No loss.

    I agree that it was NOT a pretentious movie. Nor was it really sappy.

    Fletch, you can see that this one is dividing people all over the place, and even those who love it (Nick) aren't calling it perfect. Depends on how much patience you have, really...

  12. 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"

  13. Thanks for visiting and commenting, coffeerama. Did you see this article in the NYT about the visual effects? It's pretty interesting.


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