Benjamin Button is different than every one else. He was born old, and grows younger as everyone else grows older. Along the way he lives as an ancient-looking child in an old-folks home, with adoptive black parents, works on a tugboat before and during World War II, has a fling with a diplomat’s wife in Moscow, and carries on an on-again-off-again lifelong true love romance with childhood friend Daisy. As might be expected, this both ends sadly and takes a long time. Not that either of those things is necessarily bad. In fact the main part of the story is handled quite well, mostly well-paced, certainly well performed by Brad Pitt and especially Cate Blanchett, and generally solid.
Unfortunately, Button’s extraordinary story is framed by a present-day narrative of the dying Daisy having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary aloud to her. The film cuts back to this narrative throughout Button’s story, a device which really only works once or twice when certain major surprises are revealed. Beyond that, it’s fluff with little point beyond emotional manipulation. (Even more questionable is the threatening hurricane, which turns out to be Katrina – WHY?) The film would’ve been much tighter without it. Besides the frame story, there’s also another story old Daisy tells about a backwards-running clock, which obviously has a thematic tie-in, but basically never comes up again and has no real significance. I swear, people trying to make important, award-winning films need to learn to hire good editors.
The concept of the film is fantastic – as well as the obvious implications of Benjamin’s backwards life for his relationship with Daisy, the underlying questions of what it would be like to be thirty with the experience of a sixty-year-old (and vice versa) are fascinating. The film only touches on them briefly, and doesn’t try to get too philosophical about it, which is probably good. After all, the focus is the romance, and though it’s strange that everyone seems to just accept Benjamin’s situation with very few questions, leaving the more profound implications as implicit suggestions rather than explicit explorations is a more subtle, more evocative approach.
However, the film is ultimately more interesting in concept than in execution, which is a little disappointing because we’ve come to expect excellence in both from director David Fincher. Once in a while an especially well-lighted scene would remind me Fincher was directing (like the gorgeous shot of Daisy dancing in the silhouette), and one sequence in particular was brilliant on its own – the almost whimsical scene with the car accident. The problem is that the sequence doesn’t fit into the rest of the very standard, very non-whimsical cinematic style. I really would’ve liked to have seen the whole film done with this sort of imagination and stylistic flair. After all, it IS a fantasy.
Of course, Cate Blanchett is perfect, as she always is, in a role that calls for her to age from about 18 to over 60, while Pitt is more than adequate de-aging the same age range. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing Pitt – he just isn’t given quite as much to do, given Benjamin’s general easy-going nature.) The make-up and CGI work is highly convincing, except it did get a little distracting as Pitt’s younger versions kept evoking his earlier film roles – “Look, that’s Pitt like he is right now! And there he is circa Fight Club! And circa Legends of the Fall! And hey, there he is in Thelma and Louise!” But perhaps that’s a failure of my own imagination.
Overall, I did like the film, but it’s easily a half hour too long due to the dumb framing device, and it’s more manipulative than I would like. And the fact that I expect more from Fincher doesn’t help. Above Average