Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

benjamin-button

directed by David Fincher
starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton
USA 2008; screened 7 January 2009 at Laemmle Theatres

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.

Benjamin Button - Brad & Cate

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.

Benjamin Button - Daisy Dancing

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

  • I liked the framing device, personally. Because, er, I like framing devices? And stories being told? I think there's supposed to be some significance to the Katrina setting beyond the emotional manipulation; I thought that penultimate shot pulling back from the hospital room was really powerful. Something about life going on amidst chaos or something.

    I agree that it would have been nice to have the whimsy of the car accident sequence reflected in more of the movie. It did feel somewhat out of place, but I think it fit in its own way since the movie was trying to capture LIFE as a whole, and that is one facet of the way the world works.

  • I often like framing devices, too, and I wouldn't have minded this one so much if it hadn't padded the running time out so much. And it's not that I'm against long movies, either – this one was just needlessly long because they tried to put too much in that didn't really need to be there.

    The friend I saw it with suggested that the Katrina setting was a tie-in to Brad Pitt's Katrina relief efforts. :) I guess there was already enough sadness and doomed love in the main story for me without the added horror of Katrina in the frame story. Again, it was just too much.

    I get what you're saying about the car accident, and he did incorporate that whimsy a little bit more with the recurring segment of the guy who kept getting struck by lightning (forgot about that when I was writing). I loved those parts. I just felt like I saw suddenly watching Magnolia or Amelie or Pushing Daisies rather than Benjamin Button.

    And yes, random circumstance that depends on other random circumstance is one way way the world works – but the stylistic way of depicting that series of circumstances is a filmmaking choice that was basically arbitrary in this film, because it wasn't consistent with the rest of the filmmaking choices in the film. It's not that I didn't like the events happening like that, but Benjamin had not previously shown himself to be that sort of storyteller, so for him to all of a sudden choose to tell the events leading up the accident in that manner was out of character.

  • I liked the framing device, personally. Because, er, I like framing devices? And stories being told? I think there's supposed to be some significance to the Katrina setting beyond the emotional manipulation; I thought that penultimate shot pulling back from the hospital room was really powerful. Something about life going on amidst chaos or something.

    I agree that it would have been nice to have the whimsy of the car accident sequence reflected in more of the movie. It did feel somewhat out of place, but I think it fit in its own way since the movie was trying to capture LIFE as a whole, and that is one facet of the way the world works.

  • I often like framing devices, too, and I wouldn't have minded this one so much if it hadn't padded the running time out so much. And it's not that I'm against long movies, either – this one was just needlessly long because they tried to put too much in that didn't really need to be there.

    The friend I saw it with suggested that the Katrina setting was a tie-in to Brad Pitt's Katrina relief efforts. :) I guess there was already enough sadness and doomed love in the main story for me without the added horror of Katrina in the frame story. Again, it was just too much.

    I get what you're saying about the car accident, and he did incorporate that whimsy a little bit more with the recurring segment of the guy who kept getting struck by lightning (forgot about that when I was writing). I loved those parts. I just felt like I saw suddenly watching Magnolia or Amelie or Pushing Daisies rather than Benjamin Button.

    And yes, random circumstance that depends on other random circumstance is one way way the world works – but the stylistic way of depicting that series of circumstances is a filmmaking choice that was basically arbitrary in this film, because it wasn't consistent with the rest of the filmmaking choices in the film. It's not that I didn't like the events happening like that, but Benjamin had not previously shown himself to be that sort of storyteller, so for him to all of a sudden choose to tell the events leading up the accident in that manner was out of character.