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. 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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  1. Anonymous says:

    You know, I almost entirely disagree with your main thesis here.
    I agree, the love story isn't particularly compelling, but I firmly maintain that the film isn't about their love story.

    Primarily the title itself, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is indicative of a bildungsroman, a coming of age tale. Perhaps were it called "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and his love for a 'snobbish, vain, woman' who likes to have sex with Dancers" one might have reason to complain about the lack lustre love story. It is established early on in the film that (contrary to what one might wish to see) each character is rather independent of the other, and in fact each pursue other equally as meaningful relationships. This defies a traditional love story in which both characters are seemingly halted in their pursuits. Daisy is very much depicted as "just one woman" (though clearly a very important one) but none the less, only one person in the colourful life of Benjamin. Moreover, Daisy serves as an image of the life Benjamin could have had the circumstance of his birth not been so tragic. It is not so much the loss of Daisy that is the focus of the film, but the loss of a life he could have had an enjoyed. The "misplaced sense of tragedy" of which you refer is not misplaced, in that the tragedy is not that their love couldn't flourish, but is the tragedy of a life that couldn't reach its potential.

    What you point out as some of the films short fallings specifically its "lethargic pace", somewhat anticlimactic love sequence, and its "over-manufactured image" are in fact its triumphs, and to call them all deficiencies seems somewhat paradoxical. The lethargic nature and of the film was surely deliberate, for it contrasts the imagery of the Hummingbird in the story, which represents Benjamin's fleeting life, and furthermore enhances the realism of his life. Were the film set at a more rapid pace it be filled with more "Hollywood shmaltz", in that real lives aren't always filled with excitement or the intense emotion you so desire. Were the life of Benjamin filled with epic love, tremendous loss, car chases, and the Russian Mafia (though perhaps the movie would be less lethargic and boring) it would be less relatable. I think if you ask yourself "Were my life to be put on film, what would it look like?" it would likely pan out similar to Benjamins. What makes the film relatable is that life doesn't throw things at you quickly, one thing after the other. The story of life is gradual, things circle about and story lines are set far in the past and are revived in the distant future. Such complex story lines cannot be established in one and a half hours. In fact, I would argue that these story lines are somewhat weak as the film undertakes too much for the relatively short length in comparison to that which it depicts.

    I think the somewhat anticlimactic love story is also essential to the films realism. In reality, love comes and goes. You fall in love again and again with a variety of people and I appreciate how this is captured in the film. Though both love each other and do in fact grow old together, they each have other loves and other lives, and that is reality whereas a Hollywood shmooze-fest would ignore this reality.

    As for the "over-manufactured image" I liked the whimsical aspect to the film. Keep in mind the story isn't being told from Benjamins perspective and it isn't being told in the present. We are relying on his diary and Daisy's memories and imaginings of his lifes tale. I think this calls for a perhaps somewhat whimsical, imaginative setting as it reflects the imaginative and personal nature of the journal (which in itself appears to be eclectic in nature).

    Sorry to.. well to disagree so thoroughly =P
    But I really thought it was a very meaningful, realistic piece and very much kept true to F. Scott Fitzgerald's story.

  2. Sydney, I almost agree with much of what you say.

    Yes, it is a bildungsroman coming of age tale. And for the most part it is charming, quirky, engrossing and moving. I don’t have any issues with what the film is supposed to be about. Yes, it is about how fleeting human life is and the tragedy of a relationship that cannot be. That’s pretty much covered in the first and last hours.

    I think where it goes wrong, and you’ll disagree with me here, is precisely because it attempts a full blown love story right in the middle of the film when in fact it isn’t a love story. I disagree that Daisy is portrayed as ‘just one woman’. She is set up at the heart of the film as ‘the’ woman in his life. And because she’s actually a rather unsympathetic character the film starts to unravel when the love story element takes over. Yes, it is a tragic story and Benjamin’s fate is very moving but I really couldn’t have cared less about his and Daisy’s on-off relationship. And that’s simply down to the total lack of chemistry between Pitt and Blanchett. Pitt is very good as Benjamin, but as he is restored to youth the film has to deal with the issue of Pitt as the celebrity/Heat/OK/Hello icon. He becomes a distraction and I couldn’t get past that no matter how hard Pitt tries to emote. Along with the love story element, it’s his transformation into the monolithic idea of Pitt the celebrity that misplaces any sense of tragedy the film tries to instil in us.

    Blanchett is OK. Unfortunately, I also found her aged Daisy a bit hammy when in fact she’s the glue that’s supposed to be holding the film together. Of course, it’s all about how she couldn’t reach the full potential of her life but again, she’s such an unsympathetic character that I really didn’t care that much.

    Oh, and yes, the pacing is deliberate. I agree. But the pace of the film is one of its problems. The bookending hours are very oddly, inconsistently paced. The first hour is a slow unfolding of Button’s youth, full of detail, whimsy, pathos and humour. The final hour basically goes hell for leather to cover his death and his daughter Caroline and there are a series of, for this film, quite rapid dissolves showing the decline of the younger Button. What should be a lingering death is covered incredibly quickly in the last half hour. It’s still tragic but like the disregard for Queenie’s death it has a hollowness to it. But then you could argue that as the film decides to speed up it reflects the way we observe the pace of life changing as we get older. I actually preferred all the other interconnecting storylines – Elizabeth (Swinton is one of the best things in this), Queenie, Captain Mike and Thomas actually felt more alive than anything that Brad and Cate were attempting in the central ‘doomed lovers’ roles in the Hollywood schmaltz section of the film. And it is chocolate box and roses schmaltz, it really is. Which is I suppose fitting for a film that rests on such a whimsical conceit.

    And finally, yes I agree, a story that is told via a diary and through the lens of a freak of nature is bound to be very eccentric in the way it offers up images. It’s just that I found myself being distracted not only by the revealing of the uber Brad icon but also by the battery of effects to depict the postcard landscapes and in the end, for me, it robbed the film of the very realism you believe it has.

    As I said, it’s a good film. It’s engrossing, charming, funny and tragic. But its romantic core is resplendent with a bloated Hollywood excess that distanced me from finding total sympathy with both of the leading characters. I can’t empathise with Daisy and Benjamin because there is no spark between Pitt and Blanchett and that’s the real tragedy of the film.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what Brad Pitt would think about us analyzing his movie so in depth =P

    and your points are valid, I agree it was somewhat inconsistent, I did cry when Queenie died though lol.
    Soo I guess I didn't find it as hollow.
    The guy I was with was laughing at me while I mourned her death!

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