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.
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-