Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
If only Pitt had Blanchett's talent. More importantly, if only I were dating Cate Blanchett. | Photo courtesy of Paramount
Making a great film is truly an act of alchemy. How else to explain how an exquisitely and sumptuously crafted film like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button falls well short of the mark set recently by two other films made for a relative pittance: Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler. This is not to say that Benjamin Button is a bad film. There are far too many moments of true wonder to consign to that status. Rather, it is an occasionally brilliant film that is interrupted too often by structural awkwardness, strange directorial choices and performance misses. It constantly entices you only to lose you when you're ready to fall.
Based on a (very) short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button follows the titular character on his strange journey through life. Essentially, he lives his life in reverse: he's born an old man and dies a baby. One of the film's great successes lies in the creation of Button as he grows younger (older). Indeed, it's not until the second half of the film that Brad Pitt actually assumes the role completely. Until then, Button is the most spectacular CGI creation yet seen on the big screen (this is either a tragedy or a wonder depending on your point of view about the merits of digital effects in cinema).
The best performance in the film is by a computer. | Photo courtesy of Paramount
As the film opens, we are introduced to the presumptive love of Button's life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). She is now an old woman in the end stages of cancer, and the hospital in which she is convalescing is directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Earlier I referenced the structural awkwardness of the film and some odd choices made by director David Fincher. These opening scenes are perhaps the most glaring examples of both. Tellling a story as a memory--with repeated, jarring returns to the present--constantly pulls the viewer out of whatever spell the film is able to create. Furthermore, the looming threat of Katrina feels more politically placed than an organic, essential part of the story. It's all, in a word, clumsy.
It's only when we are introduced to a thinking, speaking Button (and this takes much longer than you'd imagine) that the film begins to get some traction. These early scenes of his adolescence are the most effective and poignant of the film. Because of his condition, Button is a natural outsider. Nevertheless, he attracts the early attention of his Daisy and they become fast friends. An essential requirement of the film is that you must believe that Button develops an early love for Daisy that won't be broken despite the many obstacles thrown in their way--often by Daisy herself. Here, the film succeeds. Initially, of course, this love can't be pursued. Benjamin looks like an old man; Daisy a girl. Knowing this, Benjamin decides to make his way in the world as a sailor aboard a tugboat (helmed by a fierce and brilliant Jared Harris).
It's now that Pitt fully inhabits the role of Button and, unfortunately, his performance reminded me far too often of his work in Meet Joe Black (not good). His Benjamin is almost completely passive--more an observer of the world than a participant. As he moves through life and grows younger by the day, you never develop an attachment to his character because of the even-keeled flatness of Pitt's portrayal. And you must! Ultimately, the story of Benjamin Button has tragic dimensions. This is a man who was rejected by his parents at birth, shunned by most of society as a child because of his "illness" and eventually loses everything--every single memory of his life--as he speeds towards a death in infancy. Pitt's performance, however, never reveals those dimensions. He hints and acts on the awareness of his fate, but never engages it and communicates any clarity to the audience.
And yet--despite that--The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is assuredly a film that you should see. There isn't a more visually impressive director working right now than David Fincher. Even where Button fails, it also dazzles by creating a completely new and entirely convincing world. An opening scene where a backwards clock is built is profound and fascinating; an old man never fails to draw a laugh as he relates his many stories of being repeatedly struck by lightning. More than anything, though, the combination of practical sets and CGI effects is truly dazzling. You often won't even realize that you're watching an effect. It's all just seamless. If the same attention had been paid to the story of the film and the performances within it, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been a great film instead of a merely good one.