The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Movie Review

Posted on 20. Dec, 2008 by Administrator in Film/TV

by Brent Simon

Since his memorable shirtless introduction to the broader filmgoing public in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, Brad Pitt has alternately run from Twelve Monkeys and embraced Troy, his status as a heartthrob pin-up. It’s ironically fitting, then, that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button re-teams Pitt with filmmaker David Fincher, his Seven and Fight Club director, as a man who mysteriously ages in reverse. 

Born an arthritic, wrinkled mass in 1918 New Orleans (he could be kin to the baby from Eraserhead), Benjamin is abandoned by his birth father (Jason Flemyng), and raised in doting fashion by Queenie (Taraji Henson), an African-American nursing home attendant. Though not originally given long to live, Benjamin grows up and fits in amidst these aged folk, his tottering facilities and simple interests matching theirs. It’s here that he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a precocious adolescent who eventually blossoms into a world-class ballerina. 

As Benjamin undergoes a physical de-maturation, a sense of wanderlust develops. He gets work on a tugboat, which in turn takes him to ports around the world. Tangentially, in this manner he sees service during World War II. In the spring of 1962, Benjamin and Daisy reconnect for good, their biological ages converging. In love, they move into a duplex together back in New Orleans. When Daisy eventually announces that she’s pregnant, though, Benjamin is forced to grapple with their diverging futures. 

Truth told, there isn’t much fault to be found with the direction of Fincher, who marshals an impressive array of detailed, enveloping production design and mostly convincing effects work. No, the movie’s sins are of the first-trimester variety, story flaws that set the narrative off on the
wrong, wobbly path. 

Benjamin Button is a curious film in many respects, including as a vehicle for Pitt, who has to play a placid, reactive character. Forrest Gump will strike many as an obvious comparison – another central figure blithely bobbing through history, with both films penned by screenwriter Eric Roth, to boot. But simpleton Forrest still acted in ways that indicated a self-interest, whereas Benjamin is in one sense a hostage to circumstance, but also little more than a blank slate upon which an audience is meant to project
their own wistful pasts. 

Because of this, wide swatches of the movie’s first two acts – time at the nursing home, time at sea and a foreign-set love affair with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of an English diplomat – seem like time injudiciously spent. In all honesty, an expansion of the film’s final half hour would have made for a much more interesting and dramatically wrought experience. But Roth and Fincher duck the hard, heavy questions. 

Most damningly, there’s also a puzzling incuriousity about the central conceit, Benjamin’s affliction. All the characters around him, to the extent that they acknowledge his condition at all, just shrug and marvel, and we never see Benjamin seek medical opinion as an adult, which seems baffling, especially when he opts for a life of
domesticity with Daisy. 

I understand that this isn’t necessarily in keeping with the more esoteric, emotionally-based ruminations about mortality for which the film is aiming, but it further underscores Benjamin’s problematic passivity. 

Finally, the film’s modern day framing device, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on a deathbed-stricken Daisy while her adult daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormand), holds vigil, has a doubly distinct disadvantage. First, it doesn’t pay off with any true catharsis.
Furthermore, it again sets Benjamin apart, since Caroline reads from a diary that we’ve never seen him keep. It’s yet another gauzy scrim of separation between the audience and this fascinating but oblique, unknowable protagonist, another way for us to observe and
hear him but not feel the depth or clarity of his emotions. (Paramount, PG-13, opens December 25 nationwide)

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