The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gives its audience many, many bits and pieces of information which never connect, never quite come together into anything resembling a cohesive whole; in fact, the entire notion of causation seems to be almost entirely absent from the movie. Things happen, to be sure, but not for any reason. In some movies I might suspect that very notion would be the entire point, but it’s not the case here; in fact, almost the opposite is true: we’re told in an interesting (if almost entirely nonsensical from a story perspective) vignette that things happen because of the buildup of everything which happens before it. Tiny events can have drastic consequences on seemingly unrelated situations — though the situations indeed are related if one digs deeply enough. But that’s what we’re told; the movie shows us only the punchline without laying any groundwork. (Compare this story, for instance, with those of Magnolia or Pulp Fiction, movies in which we truly do see how intertwined seemingly unrelated events and insignificant details can be.)
That lack of cohesion ultimately proves frustrating in a movie which is otherwise so well-made. Most of the time, it’s difficult to watch a David Fincher movie without being aware of Fincher as director; he tends to have a very specific, stylized vision of what he wants to create in a movie, and his visual signature stands out clearly. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, however, Fincher seems content to let the story take the forefront; for most of the movie, Fincher-as-director is nearly invisible, as are the brilliant special effects. I can’t recall another Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects which used those effects so subtly; here Fincher and his crew are trying to present the fantastic as utterly commonplace, and it works superbly. Brad Pitt‘s titular character almost never looks as if he’s been created via digital effects.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
(out of a possible five)
The film’s two leads, Oscar-nominated Pitt and not-Oscar-nominated-but-could-have-been Cate Blanchett both perform admirably, though in different ways: Pitt had the more challenging role technically while Blanchett had the more difficult one emotionally. Pitt plays Benjamin as a stoic, which worked well for the character and likely also made the stunning CGI effects needed to create his look at different ages easier to pull off; this performance was almost entirely done via his voice. Blanchett had the showier role, having to show the changes in Daisy’s emotional state over almost sixty years of her life without the CGI assist Pitt received, and she played her part with her usual exemplary ability. My problems with Daisy were much more with the screenplay than with Blanchett’s acting.
Sometimes it’s only possible to get a full grasp for just how good an actor really is by comparing the different sorts of characters they play, and that situation certainly applied here with Taraji P. Henson. Her role as Queenie, Benjamin’s adopted mother, couldn’t be much farther from her prostitute-sorta-turned-singer in Hustle and Flow, and the Oscar nomination she received here for her fierce, proud, maternal turn was well deserved. Most of the supporting cast was also excellent, notably Tilda Swinton; almost any movie can be made better by adding a dash of Swinton to it, and Benjamin Button was no exception.
The screenplay borrowed heavily from the Forrest Gump playbook on several levels, especially in terms of structure, though it wasn’t as well-tuned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eric Roth wrote both screenplays; he won an Oscar for Gump, so perhaps rightly assumed he’d done something right with that one and should return to the same well for Button…and that well brought him another Oscar nomination, though I suspect that nomination was more for the big picture than for the smaller details. Several plot points made little sense to me, especially in the framing sequence as the story is revealed in flashback. That framing sequence, in which a now-elderly Daisy lays dying in a New Orleans hospital, seems to want to use the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina (what a spectacular and entirely unforeseen twist that was!) to add some sort of emotional heft to the movie, or to make a statement about…what? I’m not sure. Using Katrina feels cheap, honestly; it’s a storytelling crutch the movie didn’t earn, which is all the more shameful given that Benjamin Button was one of the first movies to be filmed in New Orleans after the hurricane nearly destroyed the city.
If the story itself had some infuriating details, the characters largely felt true, most particularly Benjamin himself. Well, that’s not quite accurate: the characters seemed genuine enough if contained within their own silos, but not always as much when they had to interact with one another. The fundamental relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, easily the most important in the movie, never felt quite right — again, each character seemed well-drawn on their own, but putting them together didn’t quite mesh. While it’s easy to understand why Benjamin was initially enamored of and later so attracted to Daisy, what’s more difficult to understand is why she would have done the same for him. I suppose her remark that he’s “odd” could certainly play a part in why she might find him interesting as children, but never once does she express any disbelief or revulsion or curiosity about his condition. She doesn’t even question it. The first time she makes a sexual overture to him, she’s 23 years old; chronologically he’s roughly the same age, but in the body of a 60-year-old. And while I’m certainly not saying that young women are never attracted to older men, Daisy has seen Benjamin de-age by almost 20 years — shouldn’t that strike some sort of sour chord in her? The actors play the scene with skill, but the notes sound off.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while far from flawless, still managed to entertain and enthrall thanks to the tremendous skill of its director and cast: the movie didn’t feel like its nearly three-hour running time, which is the mark of an engaging film. If only Fincher could have pulled together or excised altogether some of those details which didn’t quite fit, Benjamin Button could have been counted among the best movies of 2008; as it is, it will have to be enough that it was one of the better movies of 2008 instead.