The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Released in 2008, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button crushed audience’s souls by promising an intriguing, mind-bending premise, and instead delivering up a bleaker, more boring version of Forrest Gump. Gone is Gump’s lovable obtuseness, traded in for a blank-faced Brad Pitt in a variety of different prosthetics and CGI makeup to make him appear really old, and then really young. We also get appearances by Cate Blanchett and a few other actors who add nothing to the film.
Benjamin Button was directed by David Fincher, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and the movie itself earned a Best Picture nomination even though it remains the second most unimpressive film on Fincher’s resume, just below Alien 3. The story comes from a short story by famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the adapted screenplay is written by Eric Roth, who also wrote—wait for it—Forrest Gump. The film is overly long and dull and dreary, but don’t let that stop you from reading this review!
In New Orleans, just before Hurricane Katrina, an elderly woman named Daisy Fuller (Blanchett) is on her hospital deathbed, while her daughter (Julia Ormond) attends to her needs. Daisy asks her daughter to read aloud from a diary, and it turns out to be the diary of her true love, Benjamin Button (Pitt).
Benjamin’s birth in 1918 New Orleans was a curious case, for you see, he was born a tiny old man. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father, thinking the child a freak, abandons him on the porch of a local nursing home, where he’s adopted by one of the nurses (Taraji P. Henson).
We soon learn that Benjamin actually ages backwards. By the age of seven, he has the appearance of an 80 year old man, and he’s finally able to walk with the aid of crutches. At 12, he looks like a man in his 70s, which is when he meets six-year-old Daisy (played by Elle Fanning).
As he becomes an apparent middle-aged man, he starts taking odd jobs across the country at various important points in history. As a sailor on a tugboat, he encounters a man named Thomas, who unbeknownst to Benjamin is actually his father who abandoned him.
Shortly thereafter, Benjamin leaves New Orleans to become a full-time crewmember on that tugboat. At the same time, Daisy moves to New York City to become a ballerina. Benjamin soon finds himself living in Russia, where he has an affair with a married woman (Tilda Swinton). But everything changes for him when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. He’s sent on patrol in the tugboat, and during a routine trip, his boat is attacked by a German submarine. The attack kills all but Benjamin and one of his crewmates, and they’re saved the following day by the US Navy.
In 1945, a now 50-something-looking Benjamin travels back to New Orleans, where he reunites with his foster family and eventually Daisy. She wants to be with him, but he pushes her away.
He again meets his father, who now reveals his identity, and says he’s leaving Benjamin his estate and button company once he passes (yes, the man named Thomas Button owns a company called “Button’s Buttons” that sells buttons. What are the odds?). Two years later, Benjamin arrives in New York to visit Daisy, but leaves once he finds out that she’s with someone else.
In 1954, Daisy breaks her leg while in Paris, and this causes her to push Benjamin away yet again. It’s not until 1962 that they both meet again in New Orleans, and they now look roughly the same age. Although they’ve always been in love, this is their first time truly expressing it to one another. Five years later, Daisy is pregnant with a daughter, and Benjamin leaves her because he knows there’s no way he can raise a child while becoming a child himself. (Meanwhile in the present, this is the moment when Daisy’s daughter finally discovers who her father really is.)
Benjamin doesn’t visit Daisy or their daughter until he’s much older, and in appearance much younger (think of Brad circa Thelma & Louise, only much creepier). Daisy is already remarried, but they share one last night together, and she thanks him for leaving and now believes he did the right thing.
Benjamin is soon a teenager, and goes to live at the nursing home where he grew up, and once he becomes a child, his mind succumbs to dementia. Daisy, now an old woman, chooses to care for Benjamin for the rest of his life, until he becomes an infant and dies. Back in the present, Daisy dies just as Hurricane Katrina makes landfall and causes the levees to break. So, good on her for missing the worst of it, I guess?
The most interesting aspect of this film is its premise, but even that’s not enough to save it. For you see, you can easily look up a synopsis of the original Fitzgerald short story, and you can easily ponder what it means to age opposite of your one true love. And I’m confident whatever you imagine would still be better (and much shorter) than this drag of a film.
While it may not be the hip and popular opinion these days, Forrest Gump to me was a great piece of filmmaking, and it showed Roth’s talent for literary screenwriting. Its novel-like script, superb cast, and masterful directing made it a movie that’s still powerful today. But sorry, lightning doesn’t strike twice (contrary to a failed running gag in this film that suggests otherwise). Benjamin Button might follow the Forrest Gump template to the letter, but it never comes close to leaving the same emotional impact.
But hey, this is a David Fincher film we’re talking about, and nobody goes to a Fincher film for its emotional impact, right? But when a movie is this devoid of joy, humor, entertainment value, or anything resembling a plot, then viewers need to have some reason for sticking with a nearly three-hour-long ordeal. Instead, we have a premise that’s interesting, and then we’re disappointed to watch as it slowly goes nowhere. For a film about love, it’s one of the most sterile pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
We expect Benjamin to have interesting things happen to him, but no, he’s just a boring man with an odd condition. He does absolutely nothing other than wander into minor moments in history. He’s essentially Gump without the charisma, and without the more funny and engaging historical encounters. You’d think a character with such a special disability would be fascinating to watch, but Brad Pitt chooses to mostly stare solemnly off-screen, and this is supposed to make him deep (which mostly leaves me wondering how Pitt scored an Oscar nomination for this role). There’s no complexity to the character other than that he ages backwards, and given we knew this from the trailer, the movie really needed to give us something more. Sadly, there’s nothing more.
It’s true that the movie is beautifully photographed, and the effects used to age and de-age Pitt are often incredible (when they’re not creeping into uncanny valley territory), but in Benjamin Button, there’s no humor, the emotions are dulled, and the love story is far from believable or relatable. It plays out like a typical Hollywood romance, and during the film’s most clichéd scenes of the couple rolling around in bed, dancing on a veranda, or swimming in the ocean and staring deeply into each others’ eyes, we don’t even remember or care that Benjamin ages backwards. Unfortunately for viewers, we age normally during this overlong chore, and I wish I could get those three hours back.