THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON isn’t identical to FORREST GUMP but it’s not too far off. BENJAMIN BUTTON has a Forrest, a Jenny, a Lieutenant Dan and a Mama. Both Forrest and Button will spend time at sea, fight a war, have a long lost love, encounter a fluttering piece of symbolism and have a large cast of supporting characters that wind up serving as important influences. Eric Roth was the screenwriter of GUMP. Anybody want to guess who wrote BENJAMIN BUTTON?
FORREST GUMP is a film I have a lot of problems with. Everybody in that film lets fate decide everything. They’re like that feather in the wind that opens and closes the film. Who is the one character in that film who actually takes charge of their lives? Jenny. What happens to Jenny? She gets AIDS and dies.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born with all the ailments of a man well into his 80s. His mother dies while giving birth to him and his father drops him off on the doorstep of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who raises him and loves him like a son. Early in his life, Benjamin encounters Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and continues a friendship with her throughout the years that eventually turns into a romance. Along the way he will meet people who impact his life as he moves from adventure to adventure.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a film of fantastic production value. It is elegantly shot, the special effects and makeup work are all top notch and it was clearly a massive undertaking. Oddly, the makeup is most convincing when they’re trying to make the actors look old. When they try to make Cate Blanchett look like a 20 year old, they pack so much makeup on her she looks radioactive. The process of transforming Brad Pitt over the years, starting with being an old man/baby hybrid, is absolutely convincing and impressive. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, filled with rich sepia tones to recreate old New Orleans. That’s what I liked about the film. Here’s what I didn’t.
David Fincher has made some truly phenomenal films. SE7EN is the grittiest of gritty thrillers and FIGHT CLUB is a brilliantly overlooked and misunderstood film. Fincher’s sensibilities were perfect for those films. Even in ZODIAC, which I didn’t particularly care for, was a better film because of Fincher. He seems to be at his best when exploring the darker sides of the human condition. SE7EN is about a sadistic killer but the film also explores the darker side of a lawless detective. FIGHT CLUB’s hero and villain are the same person. ZODIAC features a killer but the bulk of the film is about the unhealthy obsessiveness of a newspaper reporter. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON requires a large heart, and this just isn’t Fincher’s comfort zone.
It is clear what the film is trying to say. BENJAMIN BUTTON deals with ideas about the fragility of life and the notion that nothing truly lasts. We all die. Our planet will eventually burn out if it doesn’t end sooner than that. The film is set against the destruction of Hurricane Katrina to illustrate this point further. BENJAMIN BUTTON allows me to understand these concepts on an intellectual level but these things are never felt. There’s a gigantic distance between film and audience. There’s no connection whatsoever. One of the main reasons for this is the completely wooden performance of Brad Pitt as Button. It’s almost as if the part of Button wasn’t written at all. Most of the time Pitt is just standing there while people react to him. He has no personality and we really don’t know anything about him. All we know about him is his condition. We don’t know what drives him or makes him tick. We don’t know when he’s happy or sad or exactly what makes him happy or sad. When he begins to court Daisy it feels like he’s doing so because the script calls for it, not because he is in love with her. Since we can’t buy their relationship, we can’t buy the film.
In the final act of the film, Fincher goes for the emotional crescendos but he winds up striking the chords with a bow that is out of tune. His film hasn’t earned these moments and you can’t make up for 2 hours and 30 minutes of failure with an emotional high note. Many of the best moments of the film, including a simple look given by one of the characters towards the end of the film, could have been moving if not for the voice over narration explaining the entire thing to us like we were idiots. Every emotional cue in the film is explained by the voice over, which creates an even bigger disconnect between performer and spectator. The film can’t allow me to experience these moments with the characters because it is too busy explaining it to me.
There is a great sequence in the film between Button and an older swimmer (Tilda Swinton). Swinton’s character is probably in her 50s at the time, and Button is a young man in his 20s, but looks to be a bit older than Swinton. Their relationship reinforces the main theme of the film and it’s the most intriguing relationship of Button’s life. However, the voice over narration tells us everything instead of us seeing it and experiencing it, and the proceedings are over far too quickly before we’re back to the Blanchett relationship which doesn’t work. Fincher also seems to be preoccupied with reminding us that Brad Pitt is handsome. Once Benjamin gets old enough to look like Brad Pitt, we get plenty of needless shots of him with his shirt off, riding a motorcycle one handed in a bomber jacket, swimming, walking on the beach (shirtless again) and sailing.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON started as a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is only a few pages long and perhaps it is best suited that way. The only thing interesting in the film is the concept. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a slick production that lacks the crucial heart that Fincher isn’t able to provide.