Based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, David Fincher's film is a bit of a curate's egg. Some critics have accused him of selling out to Hollywood with what seems, on the surface, to be a hollow, cliched love story. The premise is very quirky. Benjamin Button is abandoned by his father Thomas on the steps of an old folks' home in New Orleans. He is born as an 80 year old baby and gradually, as we experience his life, he grows younger as he becomes an adult. His path crosses with Daisy Fuller and the majority of the film is focused on their developing love for each other.
[They] totally fail to connect or develop any onscreen chemistry
The major problem with the film is entirely to do with the love story. On one hand, Fincher casts Brad Pitt, certainly maturing as a good actor, and Cate Blanchett, also highly acclaimed for her roles, as the main protagonists Benjamin and Daisy. Two very charismatic leads perfect for potentially such an emotionally powerful story. Unfortunately, on the other hand, the film's emotional core, what it should be building up to and what audiences should be emotionally investing in to make any sort of satisfying journey, totally dissipates when the story switches to the adult lives of Benjamin and Daisy. Blanchett and Pitt bask in the sepia glow of the film, no doubt digitally enhanced by the armoury of CGI special effects, and then totally fail to connect or develop any onscreen chemistry. Now, you could argue that Fincher does this deliberately to emphasise the fleeting, temporary nature of the couple's doomed romance where Blanchett as Daisy knows she will wither and age and Pitt as Benjamin knows he will continue to get younger. But his sense of tragedy, and that's essentially what the core of the film is, is firmly misplaced. The centre of the film boils down to the story of a rather snobbish, vain woman being wooed by a man, a total freak of nature, who is unable to articulate his emotions and it is stillborn, failing to become the soul destroying, awe inspiring love story that it evidently thinks it should be.
Pitt is really rather good as the aged version of Benjamin
So, if your lead actors don't engage you in the story, what exactly is there left to enjoy. Fortunately, the longeurs of the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett courtship and their eventual consummation of love is roughly the middle forty five minutes of a film Zimmer framing towards the three hour mark. Either side of the hollow romance are two hours that are far more interesting, technically more exciting and emotionally more satisfying. The first hour, as with all of the film, is related to us via the hospital bed of an aged and dying Daisy who asks her daughter Caroline, a scrap of a part that wastes the fine talent of Julia Ormond, to read from Benjamin's diary. The film unfolds like a waking dream and this structure is very successful despite the snail's pace that Fincher inflicts on the narrative. It shows how Benjamin grows up during the 1920s and 30s in the old folks' home under the care of adoptive mother Queenie, beautifully played by Taraji P. Henson. Through his eyes we see the aged inhabitants wither and die as he slowly reverses in age. Pitt is really rather good as the aged version of Benjamin and the effects used to achieve his appearance are quite superb. He learns to walk, grows in strength, and befriends the young Daisy whose grandmother lives in the home. Fincher captures this in loving period detail, beautifully staged and photographed. Button's escapades take in his duty as a member of Captain Mike's tug boat crew, his first experiences of sex and alcohol, a meeting with, unbeknownst to Benjamin at the time, his father Thomas, and finally his journey to Russia.
...it all looks a little too plastic, unreal and comic booky
Whilst in Russia he has a fling with an English woman, Elizabeth Abbott, staying in the same hotel. In one of the best sequences of the film we watch as he becomes more and more involved with Elizabeth, starting with long chats over tea in the kitchen through to eventually sleeping together. Pitt is aided here in no small measure by a gorgeous performance from Tilda Swinton, brittle and repressed, yet warm, as Elizabeth. The CGI goes a bit wild at this point, what with snow bound Russia, and the tug boat sequences and it all looks a little too plastic, unreal and comic booky to be totally believable. There is a terrific sequence where the crew, commandeered into the Navy for the WW2 war effort, come under fire from a U Boat whilst effecting a rescue operation. Benjamin also meets his father again, a nice cameo from Jason Flemyng, and learns about his true identity and his real parents. At first rejecting them, he later returns to help ease his dying father to a dignified death. All these moments add a vital energy to the film's often lethargic pace.
...swallowed up by a hurricane which is perhaps something some of the audience might wish to be the fate of the entire film.Once we've seen him reunited with Daisy and set up home, and by this time it is the mid-1960s, the cracks are beginning to show, and not just on Blanchett's face. They have to face the fact that eventually Daisy will not only have to bring up their daughter Caroline but will also have to cope with an increasingly younger and younger Benjamin. Fincher also makes the mistake of disregarding the emotional potential of the death of Queenie. She is one of the characters in the film in which the audience does invest its love and interest. She pretty much dies off screen and we get a mere glimpse of her funeral that simply doesn't arouse any emotion. The film struggles on, also now lumbered by Pitt's restoration to his current vision of celebritydom, but it does start to emotionally re-engage with the audience when Benjamin leaves Daisy and his daughter, not wishing Caroline to have known him at all because of the complex nature of his age reversal. Much of the story is here carried by Blanchett and Ormond from the hospital with Daisy recounting the years that Benjamin vanished from their lives and the not so unexpected reveal that Caroline didn't know she was his daughter until she read the diary. What's ultimately upsetting is the eventual demise of Benjamin. We see him get younger but also become infirm from dementia and eventually, once again as a babe in Daisy's aged arms, he closes his eyes and dies. It's one of the few emotionally effective scenes in the film even if the premise isn't really that logical. The death of Daisy is decorated by two somewhat mawkish symbols that have already appeared in the film; a humming bird and a clock that tells the time backwards. Both are swallowed up by a hurricane which is perhaps something some of the audience might wish to be the fate of the entire film.
It's a colossus of a film, beautifully produced, competently directed. It's a little too similar to Forrest Gump (both films were scripted by Eric Roth coincidentally) but it isn't founded on the same story as some critics have observed. Gump was totally unaware of his own place in the big moments of history. Benjamin is very aware of his frailty in the face of history, struggling to be human as the passage of other lives unfolds around him. The film's message - that we all face the same fate whatever path in time and through life and death we are traveling - informs a sad, reflective tale. Most of it is effectively told in the first and last hour but with an annoying forty five minutes of Hollywood schmaltz wedged in the middle in which Blanchett and Pitt are as plastic as the effects used to de-age them. Not Fincher's best film at any rate, despite his usual display of technical mastery and competence, even a little over-manufactured it has to be said, and it's length and slow pace do much to undermine an interesting concept and what should be a deeply emotional journey. Worth seeing, but 13 Oscar nominations? Nah.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (Cert 12A. Released February 6th 2009. Directed by David Fincher)
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