Review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008]

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Eric Roth

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the most disappointing films of 2008. Here is a film that has an incredibly skilled director, a talented cast and great technical credits, and yet despite all this, the payoff of the film is one where I felt cheated, let down, and frankly, a bit angry.

As the film opens, we see a man, disgusted by his newborn child, drop the baby off on the doorstep of another house and run away. That child is Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), whose grotesque look is due to the fact that he ages backward. A black maid finds the baby and raises him there in the old folks home. He is, at only a few years old, as old-looking and frail as the other inhabitants, after all. Except that he’s got the mind of a child, right? That’s what the film would like us to believe, and visually, we do. But when Daisy (Cate Blanchett), as a young girl, pops into Benjamin’s life, things start to become confused. There are scenes between the two of them that I suspect director David Fincher would like us to believe is young love blooming, but instead comes across like a morbid reinterpretation of Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita.

Eventually Benjamin grows up… or rather, grows down? In any event, he gets younger, and stronger, strong enough to leave the old folks home and go out on his own. And so he does. The film follows Benjamin’s adventures across the decades, meeting new people, having new experiences with those new people, and always trying to win the heart and the time of his one true love, Daisy. Every scene is beautifully shot. The cinematography is wonderful. And there is a small portion of the film that involves Tilda Swinton that I found to be wonderfully explored. She was, I think, the best part of the film.

But the movie feels hollow. Throughout the film I could not help but question why the hell no one gave half a crap that Benjamin was aging backward. No one for a second questions it, or thinks it bizarre, or abnormal, or really gives it much thought. It’s just, “Oh, that’s just Benjamin”. This was obviously Fincher’s intention, and it was a bad one. Because of the non-chalance that people treat Benjamin with concerning his disease, it makes the audience question it not with an air of curiosity, but with an air of frustration. And though Brad Pitt does an admirable job with his performance (and granted, he’s not even on screen for the first 45 minutes of the film, something I will grant was done with technical brilliance), and yet his character feels empty, like a shell rather than a complete person. This is no fault of Pitt, who I suspect played his character exactly the way he was written and directed to play him. When the characters on screen, especially the so-called love of his life, cannot connect with him, how can the viewer?

This is the fatal flaw of the film, and what upset me so greatly about it. David Fincher is a very skilled director. He knew was he was doing with this film, and seems in complete control. So why does he shape a main protagonist who is so devoid of humanity that he makes Gollum seem more real? At least with Gollum the audience got an inkling of what went on in his head. We get no such thing with Benjamin Button, who though he narrates the entire film, feels curiously distant, as if he’s forced to be a non-biased observer.

And if all this was not bad enough, it won’t shock those that see or have seen the movie that the screenplay was written by Eric Roth, who wrote Forrest Gump, a film that in many, many aspects feels eerily similar to this one. It is no secret that I am allied with the opinion that Roth essentially plagiarized his own screenplay of Forrest Gump in creating this one, just changing the main “abnormality” of the character. Rather than being below-normal intelligence, the protagonist is instead afflicted with a disease where he ages backward. In Forrest Gump, his intelligence was always being confronted as an issue, and handled with care and humor. Here, Benjamin’s is basically pushed to the side, because rather than being an important detail in the makeup of the film, it’s used here as a gimmick; essentially a McGuffin.

I wish a film like this, that’s so nice to look at, didn’t evoke such frustration in me. That it was more than just the sum of its parts. But it’s not. I couldn’t kid myself into caring about these characters, especially not that of Benjamin, or of Daisy, the most important ones in the film. Oh, did I mention the whole film is told in flashback by an old woman in a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Talk about milking the audience for tears. Fincher tried to rip the tears out of my eyes, but I can gladly say he failed miserably in that respect.

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