Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It is said that youth is wasted on the young, but in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the title character is blessed – and cursed – to live life the other way around. Born a frail, infant-sized old man with cataracts and arthritis, Benjamin grows younger as he grows up – shedding years as he increases in size and developing mentally as his body ages backward. It’s a trick that adds a level of suspense to an otherwise simple tale of a man’s journey through life, but it also brings the routine stages of that life into sharp relief. Ordinary occurrences – like a boy leaving his mother to make his way in the world, or a couple deciding whether or not to have a child – take on an added urgency and poignancy. The result is a whimsical but uncommonly moving examination of a life lived and lost. It’s also one of my favorite big movies of the year; one that pulls off the sweeping sense of satisfaction that is almost unique to big Hollywood productions at their best and which are a perfect compliment to this wintry and reflective time of year.

Taking as a starting point the kernel of an idea behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s same-titled short story, director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth quickly steer the narrative in a different direction. In Fitzgerald’s story, Benjamin is (somehow) born aged and fully-grown only to regress both mentally and physically over the course of the story’s 9,000 or so words. Here, Benjamin begins life as an infant – one who is wrinkly and infirm but otherwise a newborn inside and out. Ultimately he learns to walk and talk (in an eye-popping feat of special effects looking for all the world like a tiny old Brad Pitt), but as he grows and develops mentally he physically de-ages.

Where Fitzgerald’s story gets most of its momentum from the contrast between Benjamin and the rest of the world, Fincher and Roth have found further depth in the material by enhancing Benjamin’s internal contradiction. It’s a shift that highlights the imbalance in all our lives where there is seemingly only a brief window of time when we’re perfectly aligned both physically and mentally. This spin gives the story a more human slant and keeps it from being lost in its own gimmickry.

It is this humanity that elevates Benjamin Button artistically above Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump to which Fincher’s film has been frequently and unfairly compared. There are structural similarities and the films share a certain whimsy, but where Forrest Gump the character is used to trace the sweep of history with a sentimental, revisionist and slightly-too-clever-for-it’s-own-good eye, Button turns it around and instead uses the passage of time as a canvas against which a life can be examined in clearer detail. It’s a more introspective and probing film. It is fascinated with life and death, with love and loss, with twists of fate and with the fragility of history.

Benjamin Button is also at its heart a love story. If life offers only a brief window of perfection, it’s a rare thing that those moments can align for two people. Love is a matter of timing, being with the right person at the right time, and here the timing is complicated because the lovers are aging in two different directions. Benjamin meets Daisy when he’s chronologically 11 years old, but physically he’s closer to 70. She’s roughly the same age but a normal little girl. There is a spark between them, but the timing is wrong even as their paths cross repeatedly throughout the story. This is the nature of things. It’s is also the nature of things that, even if we’re lucky enough to find the right person at the right moment in time, it’s going to end in sadness for someone no matter what paths our lives take. There’s no escaping that.

As it follows Benjamin from his infancy though childhood to his going off to war and returning, the story is largely episodic, held together mostly by Brad Pitt’s narration as he traces the ups and downs of his odd life. Serving as a bookend to the narrative is a part of the story told in the present day as an elderly Daisy lies dying in her New Orleans hospital bed while her grown daughter Caroline reads to her from a diary that had belonged to Benjamin. Every incident of which Benjamin writes is another layer to the story; each one building upon the other thematically and narratively as the whole emerges in all its richness and we discover the true nature of Benjamin’s relationship with they dying woman.

Carrying the bulk of the film is Brad Pitt as the title character. Even as a special effect placing his mannerisms in the body of a strange, tiny old man or buried under old-age makeup, Pitt comes through and we see his personality develop from that of a little boy into a mature, middle-aged man. Considering the circumstances it’s a fairly restrained performance and it works convincingly.

As the object of his desire, Daisy is played by Elle Fanning at age 6, Madisen Beaty at age 10 and a luminous Cate Blanchett thereafter. In less screen time than that afforded Pitt, Blanchett must bring her character from a wide-eyed young girl to a selfish and somewhat pretentious 20-something to a more mature middle age and finally to an elderly dying woman. She hits a different note at each stage, but they’re all clearly a part of the same character. She’s also assisted by special effects and make-up, but it’s her performance that makes it work.

Among the large and capable supporting cast, Taraji P. Henson stands out as Queenie, the New Orleans old-age home caregiver who finds the strange looking infant Benjamin on her doorstep one night in 1918 as the country celebrates the end of World War I. Though she doesn’t give birth to Benjamin, she gives the man-child a life, at first assuming that life won’t be very long, but eventually easing into the assumed role of motherhood. She’s the warm beating heart and moral center of the first half of the film, bringing it dignity and giving it direction.

Also excellent is a weary and distracted Julia Ormond in a small but important role as Daisy’s grown daughter. She beautifully captures the awkward mix of concern and frustration and guilt and sadness of a woman losing a mother. There is the weight of history behind her performance and you get a real sense of the lifetime between these two women even after the briefest of introductions.

Another star of Benjamin Button is the miraculous work of the special effects crew. The ample CGI here is deployed completely at the service of the story rather than the other way around. Such effects-heavy films run the risk of getting caught up in their own gee whiz flashiness and drowning their story in technological wonder, but Fincher never loses site of the human core of his narrative. The effects, though amazing, are blended seamlessly with reality. Rarely a distraction, they’re all the more remarkable for not standing out. It’s a shame that their careful disguise might keep them from getting awards attention in the shadow of a couple of superhero pictures for which the special effects are more of an obvious crutch.

Where the film appears to stumble a little bit is that some of the episodes and subplots are a little undercooked. There’s a thread involving Benjamin’s real father for example that isn’t quite fully developed. Also, the modern day bookends risk feeling tacked on, especially with a Hurricane Katrina component. In retrospect however, each element is simply another layer to the story. Some are deeper than others, but none of them necessarily stand on their own and all of them combine to enhance the richness of the whole – a whole that works beautifully.

Compared to other mainstream films of its type, Benjamin Button is also not so nakedly manipulative. It never stoops for the heavy drama or easy sentimentality you’d expect from such a film, but I have to admit personally I was in the mood for a little more in the way of emotional pandering. Time and again the film brought me close to tears, but then backed off and I wish that it hadn’t. However, every viewer’s response will be different and in the end I think it’s a better film for showing a little restraint.

Overall, from the thematically layered story to Alexandre Desplat’s sensitive score (punctuated with carefully chosen and mostly unobtrusive pop music to help establish the ever-shifting time and place), Claudio Miranda’s beautiful cinematography, the remarkable effects work and finally the carefully tuned performances underpinning the whole thing, Fincher’s film is an elegant, finely modulated and nearly flawless piece of work. In the scope of what the director is attempting, he leaves himself open to nitpicking and not everyone will fall for his vision, but for those of us so smitten, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a joy to behold and easily a late-inning candidate for the best movie of 2008.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. USA 2008. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Eric Roth from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cinematography by Claudio Miranda. Music composed by Alexandre Desplat. Edited by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. Production design by Donald Graham Burt and Kelly Curley. Costumes designed by Jacqueline West. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Jared Harris, Elias Koteas, Phyllis Sommerville, Tilda Swinton, Elle Fanning and Madisen Beaty. 2 hours 47 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. 4.5 stars (out of 5)

123 Responses to “Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) **** 1/2”

  1. Craig, I’d definitely agree that BB is a more ambitious film than FG; but I also think that when ambition stumbles, it takes on another name.

  2. “Craig, I’d definitely agree that BB is a more ambitious film than FG; but I also think that when ambition stumbles, it takes on another name.”

    OW! Good one, Jeff. I can’t necessarily argue with that, although I’d mention that some there have been some truly ambitious stumblers out there that are far more fun to revisit than some of the “successful” films sometimes are.

    First one that comes to mind is Barry Lyndon. Another candidate would be The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Another might be The Hudsucker Proxy. The point is, where you draw that line is subjective and time tends to look better on these things than the harsh light of newness.

  3. Well yeah, definitely. If a movie, on balance, offers enough good stuff then I’m more than willing to give it credit and overlook the parts that might not work as well, it’s all up to the individual. And I still like Benjamin Button, I just don’t love it.

    Also I think Barry Lyndon is just about flawless, so you’re on your own there, kemosabe.

  4. I don’t consider Barry Lyndon a stumbler at all (I think it’s Kubrick’s last true masterpiece)–in fact I have used it with some other films as a contrast with Benjamin Button. That said, I agree with your point overall, Joel. Many films that were tarred as being overly ambitious and flawed are more interesting than movies that are successful. (Gump is “successful,” but I don’t find it interesting.)

    I’d say the reason why Benjamin Button is ultimately pretentious, as much as I hate to say it, is that it takes on just about all of the elements belonging to certain formula–here seemingly from Roth’s own previous, most famous work–and strives to present itself as artistically exalted.

  5. Hindsight I think has shown what a terrific movie Barry Lyndon is, but in its time I think it got kicked around pretty good so I take Joel’s point.

    I agree Jeff that the chasm between us on BB is not that wide, it’s just deep.

    As I said before to Alexander, my usual angle of approach to a movie these days is an emtional or visceral one. If the film works on either or both of those levels, then I tend to overlook things that might bug me in another movie. If the movie fails on those levels (see Silent Light), then I tend to use its flaws against it like a cudgel.

    Christmas morning, Button just went down perfectly. I was in the exact right mood at the exact right time and with a couple of exceptions (the one JB mentioned for example about the John Wilkes Booth reference) there wasn’t a false note struck.

    And I don’t see the artistic exaltation at all. I see a work of populism with an little extra attention to craft and detail. Compared to Ron Howard’s brand of the same? There’s no comparison.

  6. Yes, not wide but fairly deep in those places where it happens.

    One note that I think is important in comparing BB and FG: When Forrest Gump came out, it wasn’t intended to be an awards-contender at all, but merely a Summer popcorn movie. BB was always intended to be an Oscar contender.

  7. Yeah, Alexander and Jeff, you both illustrated my point pretty well, which Craig picked up very astutely. Barry Lyndon had it’s fair share of love and hate when it came out. It has since been redeemed over time, but it still has its detractors.

    I’m not saying Benjamin Button is an overlooked masterpiece necessarily, but I am saying that the same of mix of opinion exists today on it. How it shakes out in the long term is anyone’s guess.

  8. All true, Joel. That is more than fair enough.

  9. After stubbornly holding out for some 30 odd years, Alexander and Jeff will eventually admit their misguided analysis, drop to their knees and declare ‘we’re not worthy’ :-)

  10. Let’s not get hasty.

  11. Perhaps I got a little ahead of myself there.

  12. Which misguided analysis? There are so many.

    See you in 2039.

  13. I think he meant mine.

  14. And my own.

  15. That’s a very nice compliment Sam . . . especially considering most of what I said was copied & pasted from Cliff Notes Online.

    (Kidding, of course.)

    I recently re-watched the first hour or so of BB, during which I paid more attention to how Fincher has created a look and mood, the amount of thoughtful effort invested in each aspect of what appears on the screen — lighting, framing, hues, transitions/editing. Also I paid more attention to Pitt’s performance. There’s a lot going on to savor aside from the initial emotional reaction to something new. A sort of conversation piece of the mind.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Alexander has, that BB is pretentious; I’m not sure what word I would use. My take is that the marriage of Roth and Fincher is not a perfect union. While I see Roth as dealing in broad and rather showy thematic strokes, Fincher’s approach is quieter, more studied, focused and lyrical.

  16. Great to hear more of your thoughts, Pierre.

    I’d be happy for the word pretentious to be dropped from the lexicon altogether (absolutely no offense intended Alexander). I never use the term myself as I find it too pejorative in a way that fails to acknowledge that all such judgments are highly subjective – who am I to refer to something as pretentious (and risk conveying contempt) when I know that others will find richness of meaning in it? My problem is with the word not the man who used it.

  17. Well, there has to be some word, pejorative or otherwise, for a work of art that intends towards lofty artistic goals for which the artist is incapable of reaching or where the parts simply don’t jell; and I say that still meaning, once again, that TCCofBB is a good, entertaining, emotional movie that I like but don’t love. I agree that ‘pretentious’ is a sort of fightin’ word, but I feel like it’s still a necessary concept in need of an appropriate term.

  18. Language police! Thought police!

    I kid. And no offense taken, Sartre. I believe Jeff has covered the appropriate bases here. I tend to avoid the word myself, if for no other reason than its obviousness as a criticism, though some films do beg for its application. Especially ones directed by Sam Mendes. Wait, wrong thread here.

    I did see Benjamin Button again today, and I will say this: the parts/aspects of the film I already liked were even better, but the parts/aspects of the film I did not care for were worse. So it just about evened out for me.

  19. It’s a personal bugbear, I really don’t care for the word because of the connotations it holds for me. I appreciate that it’s a useful shorthand for many and that’s fine.

    “I did see Benjamin Button again today, and I will say this: the parts/aspects of the film I already liked were even better, but the parts/aspects of the film I did not care for were worse. So it just about evened out for me.”

    Let’s hope it doesn’t cause some kind of fundamental psychic split and you start talking like Gollum or your right hand takes on a treacherous mind of its own.

  20. Seriously though, Sartre, do you have an alternative? I object to reviews that contain words like ‘loathsome’ or ‘insufferable’ or ‘ass’ for being inflammatory, but the p-word is really a specific and necessary bit of vocabulary with no good synonym (‘fatuous’?)

  21. I wouldn’t care to use any of those words, Jeff. It doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes indulge in unqualified and more disparaging reactions to film. But I prefer to describe what it was that did or didn’t work for me, e.g. “I found the film overlong”, “The use of… irritated me” etc. God forbid that everyone would express themselves the way I do. Can’t think of anything more boring. I enjoy how we all bring different ideas, personalities, and communication styles to our discussions. But after Pierre made reference to the use of pretentious I decided to voice my longstanding feelings about it.

    Edit: to better answer your specific question. I’d say something like “X strived to communicate… but for me it seemed to fall short of those goals because…” I’d use a bunch of words rather than a single one.

  22. I would say there is a place for most words, but it should be used with thought and discretion. Though blunt honesty can be just as useful in communicating thoughts on film as deep analysis. Or perhaps a bridging of the two. For instance–to steal an example from myself–I found Revolutionary Road‘s treatment of an already unpleasant story made it only more perpetually unpleasant, for little purpose. Yet, one can describe why it was unpleasant, through giving details. I suppose this is all a round-about way of saying I agree with Sartre’s larger point, though if someone can supply reasonably sturdy intellectual abutment for these more pointed interpretations, I say, all the better.

    Only tangentially on-topic, or perhaps more on-topic–that YouTube video comparing Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is amusing and funny.

  23. I think this touches on the difference I have with Jeff between pretention and failed ambition.

    I’m a big fan of the word pretentious, but I think it’s often used in the wrong instances. To me there’s more to it than failed lofty ambition, there’s a degree of pretending that the ambition succeeded (or simply a delusion that it’s so)…pretending you’re something you’re not.

    Button may not have succeeded in what it set out to do (that’s kind of down to personal choice), but to call it pretentious puts it down for even trying.

    I guess it helps that I never really approached it as Art with a capital A. As I said above, I think it’s a smart, well-crafted bit of populism. That’s how I went into it, and that’s what I got.

    As I’ve said before, part of me hopes it doesn’t win the Oscar. I don’t want to suffer the backlash, and I’m not prepared to exalt the movie in that way (even though it takes a lofty place on my own Top 10 list).

    I’m more comfortable calling a movie like Crash pretentious because not only did it fall short of its lofty ambitions, it’s still exalted and I just happen to be on the side of the people who don’t like it. If I hadn’t liked BB so much, I might be a lot more comfortable with the word.

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