Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
By Matthew Huntley
January 5, 2009

Brad Pitt just had a Crying Game moment...and liked it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the epic story of a man who ages in reverse. When he's born in 1918, Benjamin appears weathered and wrinkly, as if a 70-year-old man shrunk down to the size of a baby. A doctor says Benjamin's insides are on the cusp of giving out and he has arthritis. How can this be?

What's interesting about Eric Roth's screenplay, adapted from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that it doesn't attempt to explain the phenomenon of a reverse-aging man in practical terms. It doesn't attempt to explain it at all, really; the characters in this world simply accept Benjamin's case as, well, a curious one.

The movie suggests Benjamin's condition might be tied to the story we learn about in the prelude, in which Monsier Gateau (Elias Koteas) intentionally designs a train station clock to run backwards. Gateau hopes his invention will eventually cause time to reverse so his son, who was killed during the Great War, will return home safely. Does the clock have anything to do with Benjamin? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Most of the movie is told in flashback. It opens in 2005, just as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike New Orleans. Caroline (Julia Ormond) sits in the hospital beside her dying mother (Cate Blanchett), whose last wish is for Caroline to read Benjamin Button's diary aloud to her. Over the next two and a half hours, Caroline, who has never heard of this man, will learn a great deal about her mother's life.

Benjamin's story begins the night World War I ends and all of New Orleans is celebrating. His father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemying), is so ashamed of his son's appearance and grief-stricken after his wife dies in child birth, he immediately gives Benjamin up to a nursing home, run by the devout Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Queenie is told the peculiar-looking baby only has a couple weeks to live, but those weeks turn into years and soon Benjamin's bones get stronger, his skin clears up and more hair grows on his head.

When he's seven and walking with a cane, Benjamin (Brad Pitt, in one form or another) meets the love of his life, a red-headed girl named Daisy, who will eventually grow into the old lady from the beginning. Daisy dreams of becoming a professional ballet dancer and her wish comes true until an unforeseen accident suddenly ends it. Just before we find out what happened, Benjamin talks about the notion of chance and how any small event can prevent or lead to a much bigger one - how it only takes a split second for someone's life to completely change. This short sequence seemed borrowed from other movies whose entire themes are about chance ("Magnolia"). It felt extraneous and abrupt; the filmmakers only seemed to leave it in because it was "neat" sequence and not necessarily a profound one.

Ultimately, Benjamin Button is about the protagonist's incredible life over eight decades. It's similar - perhaps too similar - in structure and presentation to Forrest Gump, also written by Roth, right down to the eccentric characters and historical events. Like Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button meets many colorful people and finds adventure across several years of world history. He meets an artistic tugboat captain (Jared Harris), who first introduces him to women, sex and alcohol; he has an affair with a woman named Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton), who dreams of swimming across the English Channel; and he fights briefly in World War II as an honorary member of the Navy.

The movie might have felt more magical and wondrous had Forrest Gump not already come along. But even 14 years later, Button lacks that film's freshness and emotional hook. Up until about the two-thirds mark, after Benjamin and Daisy reunite and "meet in the middle" as far as age, I never felt a bond with the characters. I was always interested in what they were doing, but I can't say I deeply cared about them. The director, David Fincher, keeps viewers at a distance instead of letting us participate in the larger-than-life story. Perhaps it was due to the nature of the story itself, but for most of the movie, I felt like an outsider looking in.

Pitt is handsome, of course, but the movie doesn't give him enough range of emotions to really act. Oddly enough, he plays sort of the straight man here. He's likable and sincere, and he allows himself to become physically transformed, but the man underneath all the makeup and effects is sort of uninteresting compared to everyone around him. Even his voice-overs seemed flat. The best performance in the film comes from Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, who has a definite screen presence and will surely be seen more after this film. She's delightfully animated without going over the top.

On a technical level, Benjamin Button is amazing to behold in terms of its production design, its photography and its makeup and special effects, all of which are top-notch. The filmmakers convinced me Brad Pitt would look the way Benjamin did at each stage of his life and they were truly beautiful effects instead of distracting ones. Amazingly, the movie let me see the beauty of old age.

In the end, reverse-aging isn't what Benjamin Button is about, and that's probably why seeing Brad Pitt grow younger didn't end up feeling like a gimmick. The movie is about seizing every opportunity that comes our way - whether it's taking a ride on a tugboat or teaching a dance class - and looking at people who are different as special. To me, the movie also spoke about how age, which seems to be so relevant to human beings, is beside the point when it comes to living and loving. However old or frail a person may be, it's important for all of us to become age-blind as much as we strive to become color blind.

I'm not going to call The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a great film. Many of its themes and techniques feel recycled from other movies, and I'm not sure the movie had to be as long as it is (it clocks in at 166 minutes). I was never bored during the film, but some of its scenes, including the prelude about the clockmaker, or the scene about chance, felt unnecessary (instead of setting up the movie with the clockmaker's story, why not make Benjamin's birth completely inexplicable?). But even with its flaws, Fincher and his crew fill this enormous production with enough wonder and emotion for it to be called a worthy achievement.