Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Let's not kid ourselves. Regardless of what's written about it, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is THE movie to see before the Oscars. Heralded throughout the year and bound to be up for numerous awards (including Best Picture), David Fincher's epic ode to life, death, and special effects is the one prestige film to which the most viewers will be flocking. And so they should – while it's still in theaters. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen in all its splendiferous glory. Beautifully rendered, it's the source of some of the year's most extraordinary cinematic images. Yet while it excels in inventive eye candy, “Benjamin Button” lacks in satisfying storytelling, and its failure to deliver the “Titanic”-sized sweep it promises drops it just below 2008's best films.
A vast expansion of the 1920s short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the movie uses a narrative device much like that of James Cameron's sinking boat saga: at the end of her life, an old woman looks back on the romance that defined it. The woman here is not Rose but Daisy (the great Cate Blanchett, buried beneath one of many makeup department miracles), a 90-something New Orleanian on her death bed, and the significance of her memories is not historical but fantastical. During what's presumably her final hospital visit, Daisy's daughter, Caroline (the under-worked Julia Ormond), reads to her mother the diary of Benjamin Button, Daisy's old flame who burned out before Caroline's dad came into the picture. As Caroline reads, so begins the titular journey, as narrated – after a voiceover shift – by Benjamin himself (Brad Pitt), who just happened to age backwards. We travel back to 1918 New Orleans when Benjamin was born a wrinkled, arthritic infant to a wealthy – ahem – button manufacturer (Guy Ritchie favorite Jason Flemyng) who, horrified at the thought of raising a freak, abandons Benjamin on the stairs of an old folks' home. The establishment is owned by Queenie (“Hustle and Flow”'s Taraji P. Henson), a benevolent mother hen-type who finds Benjamin, sees past his shocking exterior, and raises him as her own. As the miracle of nature grows up (er, down), we follow him through his entire counterclockwise life, much of which consists of the relationship with Daisy, whose existence runs parallel to his but in the other direction.
On paper, the concept of “Benjamin Button” reads like a dizzying headache of impossibilities. To ground the story, Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (the structurally similar “Forrest Gump”) minimize the fantasy element as much as possible. After the initial wow factor, virtually none of the film's supporting characters make much of Benjamin's “unusual circumstances” beyond the occasional mention of him as a “special person.” He divulges his “case” to those he chooses (folks such as an early lover played by Tilda Swinton are completely unaware of it), he's never hassled by the press, he's never scrutinized or even approached by need-to-know medical scientists. He simply goes about life as anyone would, eventually journeying out into the unknown and letting his experiences and encounters with others mold the man he will become. Such an approach is a bit jarring to the viewer (even we begin to forget about the reverse maturation), but it holds the film in a tangible realm of reality, almost welcoming the possibility that something like this could actually happen.
It certainly looks real enough. There are incredible special effects in “Benjamin Button” that are unlike any you've ever seen, namely those that transform Brad Pitt from an 80-ish, height-challenged weakling to his former, wrinkle-free self. (At one point, he's the spitting image of himself circa his blazing, “Thelma & Louise” debut, and it's in that moment when we realize that the male heartthrob of our time was the only choice to play a role in which the stages of youth and beauty are not only addressed but personified.) The transitions were achieved through a plethora of state-of-the-art techniques, including digitally painting Pitt's made-up face onto the bodies of smaller actors. What surrounds Pitt is equally marvelous, as Fincher (“Se7en,” “Zodiac”) is no stranger to creating worlds so intricate and comprehensive, they envelop the audience. The 46-year-old director has become an atmospheric master of Ridley Scott-caliber talent. For his – and the year's – most ambitious undertaking, Fincher and cinematographer Claudio Miranda make magnificent use of the medium, capturing within their frames the breadth, splendor and sorrow of life itself. Whether in scenes that stretch to far-off horizons or in carefully chosen interiors, the film is drawn with tremendous detail and literal depth, leaving you hardly aware of the nearly three-hour running time.
The things that are great about “Benjamin Button” are stalked by the things that aren't. As much as I'd love to wholeheartedly praise this movie, its flaws are tough to ignore. Fincher's and Roth's decision to play down the miracle aspect is commendable for relatability; however, it presents the viewer with a needlessly exhausting struggle. Too many elements – such as how Benjamin can account for the events for which he was not present or the ways in which the final stages of the character's physical arc are depicted – are asked to be accepted as fantasy while still belonging to something that's clearly trying to cement itself in reality. There's a constant tug-of-war between the real and the impossible that eventually proves to be unworthy of wrapping one's head around. Then there's the overpraised performance by Taraji P. Henson, which will probably earn an Oscar nomination. A shameless bit of comic relief, Henson's character is the most cartoonish contender since Renee Zellweger's Ruby from 2003's “Cold Mountain.” Worse yet, the nature of Queenie as the archetypal black “mammy” is borderline offensive in racial terms. Also undeservedly lauded is Brad Pitt in the title role. He may have been the perfect choice, but Pitt's performance is cold, monotoned, and vacuous. Even after all the places we go and things we see with Benjamin, we're never really able to get inside his head and, thus, never truly able to care about him.
If “Benjamin Button” were any other film, I'd probably let its shortcomings slide. It's a rather huge achievement and a personal triumph for Fincher. But this is THE movie of 2008 – the one that claims to have it all, the one that's billed as a rapturous romantic masterpiece, the one that was built up incessantly and withheld until Christmas day. A film with so many self-induced expectations is all the more reprehensible when it fails to live up to all of them. What few notions it evokes about human nature fade almost immediately after it ends. True movie lovers would be foolish not to catch “Benjamin Button” before it finishes its theatrical run, but many will find that the experience burns out faster than an old flame.