The Curious Case of Benjamin is a step in an unusual direction for director David Fincher since his previous films are exclusively thrillers that make your blood boil with every scene. It can be argued that it’s a necessary step to expand his range as a filmmaker. We all know Fincher is a master at the psychological thriller – stepping into a person’s mind to see what makes them tick, what makes them commit the absurd acts that his characters portray. Benjamin Button is also his weakest film to date since his feature debut with Alien 3. But Benjamin Button isn’t a total disaster, not by a long shot. There is some good embedded in the 166-minute-long fantasy film that’s based on the 1922 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald. How much good there is depends on the person that views it, film is subjective after all.
Benjamin Button is a long movie to consume in one sitting. Yes, it’s under 3 hours but for a romantic fantasy film it feels like certain moments in Benjamin Button’s (Brad Pitt) life last an eternity. Just like the story of the clock maker who built the extravagant clock in the opening scenes time appears to be moving backward as the story apparently moves forward. That slower pacing works to a degree for a film like this – I can’t imagine the quicker stylistic pacing of Fight Club or Panic Room working well with this story Fincher is putting on screen. Fincher’s unique storytelling style is still on display here switching from character to character to get a new piece of Benjamin Button’s life from different points of view.
One of the strongest and weakest aspects in Benjamin Button revolve around the characters. Nearly all characters in the film adaptation are new – created for the story that’s being told. The only element that remains true to the original story is Benjamin and his curious life of aging backward. Born as an old man, Benjamin was cast away by his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and ended up in the care of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and Tizzy (Mahershala Ali) in a retirement home for the elderly.
Narrated entirely by Benjamin, as he ages backward, those he becomes closest with die due to the normal aging process. The theme of life and mortality are present throughout Benjamin’s life as he witness’s death while he gets younger in appearance. Life and death are handled with care by Fincher as he examines how one person can leave a lasting impact on those around him and how the people each impact Benjamin. Each character that comes into Benjamin’s life teaches him something new about it. Life is precious and how its experiences all depends on the person’s outlook. Few characters change Benjamin – mold him into the man he ultimately becomes. Captain Mike (Jared Harris) is arguably the first to impact Benjamin and teach him about following your passions while Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) teaches Benjamin about love. Benjamin’s true love is Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
As sweet as Daisy and Benjamin’s love story comes across as a decades old story – majority of it feels bland and out of tune with the rest of the story. With a film being a celebration of life, the dialogue is lifeless, and performances are stuck in monotone as if all the emotion was wrung out of the script. At times the passion is there but the lack of any feeling derail what is happening on screen. That’s where the 166-minutes is felt when sitting through a scene of Pitt and Blanchett and nothing is felt. They easily can be juxtaposed to Forrest Gump and Jenny’s relationship – at least Forrest expressed his emotions in a more human way.
Regardless of the emotionless characters, Pitt and Blanchett give incredible performances throughout the decades of growth. There is some life given to Benjamin and Daisy but not much to write home about. Their bond and connection start at a young age and it’s easy to root for them as a couple with all they’ve been through. It’s a career defining performance for Pitt showing his range as an actor.
Many of the issues in Benjamin Button can all be traced to the screenplay written by Eric Roth. It’s a brilliantly unique concept to adapt but it could have been a half hour shorter and still make the same impact it was attempting to. Benjamin and Elizabeth’s story could have been trimmed, same can be said about Daisy’s car accident and life in New York. I get its necessary to establish the back story but it feels out of place in the grand scheme of things.
The good in Benjamin Button is made abundantly clear from the opening scene. The set design easily transports you back into the specific time period it’s mirroring. The changes between decades are more subtle than in Forrest Gump when it’s easy to spot what decade we are in. It’s the changes to the clothing, the hairstyles and attitudes that make their presence known as to what decade it is.
The true strength however is in the visual effects and character design specifically surrounding Benjamin and how he ages. The prosthetics alone capture the essence of aging and how it changes a person on a year-to-year basis. Benjamin ages life a fine wine and we see the full life cycle as he goes from barely able to walk and talk to fighting in World War 2 alongside Captain Mike to riding a motorcycle and then becoming a child and forgetting everyone and everything around you.
From a technical standpoint, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a masterpiece in filmmaking, it received and deserved all the nominations at the 81st Academy Awards. In reality, it’s a good film with glaring flaws that cannot be ignored. It’s a film that can be watched maybe a total of 2 times before it becomes a chore to sit through. Led by powerful performances, Pitt, Henson, and Blanchett breathe life into their characters even with the stale and monotone dialogue. It’s not Fincher’s best effort, but it most certainly isn’t his worst film.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is written by Eric Roth, directed by David Fincher is Rated PG-13 and has an 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released on December 25, 2008 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 47 minutes. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can be bought by online retailers like iTunes, Amazon and Google. 3 out of 5.