Director: David Fincher
Short Story: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Screenplay: Eric Roth
Producers: Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Starring (voices of): Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 159 min
From time to time around here, whenever a very popular movie is being released, we tend to fight over who gets to write the review. As a compromise, we decided that all of us who saw the film would get to write up a little something; something we call a R3view. Here is a little taste of how each of us felt about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Synopsis (from IMDb): “I was born under unusual circumstances.” And so begins ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards: a man, like any of us, who is unable to stop time. We follow his story, set in New Orleans from the end of World War I in 1918 to the 21st century, following his journey that is as unusual as any man’s life can be.
all of our reviews to follow…
David Fincher is no stranger to the unconventional story and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no different. Even with a cast including two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, one must wonder if the studios were hesitant in greenlighting an adaptation of a short story about a fellow who is born old and ages backwards, a romantic drama with one of the most mild-mannered protagonists in recent big-budget Hollywood history.
It is a film that is not subtle in its message of mortality and love. To some, the story may seem unfocused and sloppy, but to others, such as myself, it is one that resonates greatly. It is essentially a fairy tale and one that doesn’t fall prey to the sentimentality that often plagues these kind of films – but then again, Fincher has never been much of a sentimental guy. Somehow, despite this fairy tale aspect, the movie manages to stay grounded enough in reality that the romance between Benjamin and Daisy seems not only probable, but likely.
While Benjamin Button isn’t the most interesting character outside of his unusual circumstances, Brad Pitt does a great job getting into the skin of the character at whatever age he is. As a child in the body of an old man, he has the many mannerisms of an elderly person, but the naive innocence and curiosity of a child. As a middle-aged man in a younger man’s body, his baby face is apparent, but he’s wise enough to the world to know his selfish human desires in life and love can only lead to pain. Pitt captures all of the character’s complexity perfectly and an Oscar nod certainly isn’t out of the question here. The supporting cast are all just as strong – but Fincher always has had a knack for bringing out the best in actors and this is no different.
The technical aspects, as with all of Fincher’s films, are flawless. It is safe to say that Fincher is going to get his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. The effects and make-up teams deserve any and every award that can be thrown their way as well. In this aspect, it is a breathtaking achievement and the film is worth watching for this alone.
Benjamin Button isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it is damn fine filmmaking and one of the strongest films I’ve seen all year. Keep your eyes out for this sucker, because it’s going to win plenty awards here in a few months.
I can imagine the difficulty of ‘capturing a complete life’ in a single film, the intricacies and nuance of even a mundane existence is a challenge to any filmmaker and to achieve this with some sort of resonance in an audience even moreso. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems more interested in being a technology and make-up demonstration than the ‘deep and meaningful fantasy’ that the scope and score would indicate. As a sentimental fountain of countrified platitudes it is more heavy-handed than Tim Burton’s Big Fish, and at times feels a lazy borrower of the quirky flashbacks and co-incidents of Magnolia and Forrest Gump (and while the melodrama and death ratio is often as high as P.T. Anderson’s film, I’m more specifically thinking of the ‘co-incidence’ flashbacks the insert themselves here as a short side story (and bombastic metaphor of a backwards clock) and a man often struck by lightening (all seven incidences never failed to elicit a genuine laugh though).
For a film that spends nearly three hours with its central character, you really don’t get to know much about him, it is content to skim along the surface of major incidents of his life and several love affairs (an episode in Russia with Tilda Swinton being by far the strongest) and friendships (a tug boat captain being by far the weakest). The love of his life, which I swear he doesn’t spend much time with until he is nearly 40, merely being whisked along by being the underwritten and selfishly bland Daisy (Cate Blanchett at her most mundane). The most compelling performance (other than that of the technicians – the film is beautiful) actually comes from the most genuine portrayed character in the film, Daisy’s daughter Caroline (welcome back Julia Ormond!) who actually never spends a single scene together with Benjamin Button. While she doesn’t have much to do beyond sharing voice-over narration duties when the film seems inclined to cut back to the framing story of Daisy on her deathbed, she nonetheless has the most expressive and nuanced face. Perhaps the films only source of subtlety (and this while Hurricane Katrina rages on in the background. Furthermore, the film spends a massive amount of time with the ‘old-newborn’ Benjamin, the seems to rush its conclusion, spending an embarrassingly poorly acted dozen minutes or so as child actors take over for Brad Pitt and the computers.
After the graceful and hefty Zodiac, this expensive looking epic is a major disappointment from David Fincher. Where the celebrity serial killer fact-finding mission mined the dark corners of the collective American psyche and offered a rich visual backdrop of three decades that had the good sense to never rubbed the viewers nose in its digital wizardry, Benjamin Button favours blunt fantasy and a cornball tourism of the 20th century without ever getting at the heart of anything. (In the growing library of Brad Pit films that exceed 2 and a half hours it is way more Meet Joe Black than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). With its attempt at magical realism and wonder falling curiously flat, and that for a vast expanse of the film, Benjamin is a digital creation (albeit a pretty convincing one), I wonder if Benjamin Button would have been better served as a completely animated film. Would the expectations and of the medium (Animated Fantasy vs. Big Christmas Oscar Film) have changed anything? Maybe. Maybe Not.
As we all know, expectations are nearly everything when it comes to a film you’re very much looking forward to or with a film you don’t think you’re going to like. With Benjamin Button, I’ve been really looking forward to this for about 6 months. While it was disappointing to some degree, it has kept me thinking over the past 36 hours or so.
Maybe the first thing people will notice and say about Benjamin Button is how gorgeous this film is. For this latest outing, Fincher has gone with Claudio Miranda for his cinematographer. Miranda has worked with Fincher before, but never in the head honcho capacity of aesthetics. Every shot is as meticulous as it is beautiful. So much so that for me it was actually a distraction. Everything was just too damn perfect. Then again, this is a sort of fairy tale and maybe fairy tales are supposed to look like moving paintings. Either way, there’s no denying that a lot of work went into making each frame a spectacle to behold.
As for the plotline, I find the short story to be more fulfilling and leaves a lot more to the imagination. In Fincher’s version, we almost get too much exposition. The stories within Button’s life are nice, but a lot of them are inconsequential to anything. They are simply bits of a man’s life. The war scene for example. It isn’t any more profound or interesting in Benjamin Button’s case than it would be with any other movie character. The fact that he is aging backwards has no relevance to this bit of story telling. And there are several sequences like this – they just don’t matter.
There are lots of nit picks I could find (*cough* hummingbird, *cough*). Still, for a movie that is almost three hours in length, it really seemed to rush by quickly. As I left the theater pondering what I had just seen, I knew that I wanted to love the film but couldn’t. I wanted to hate it, but couldn’t. Somehow I felt different. I was inspired. Inspired to do what, I don’t know. Travel? Be less materialistic? Be happy with what I have? I don’t know. But driving home I felt good and realized that although the movie doesn’t overtly say much, subconsciously it has loads to say and the characters express those ideas well and charismatically. Blanchett remains on my “best of” list of actresses… probably right at the top.
It would be pretty easy to associate The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with Forest Gump. Both movies follow an outcast through several moments of their life and both revolve around a love story. In many ways though Button is a much more personal story that never feels the need to tie its main characters into history. The closest this ever comes to happening is the fact that at one point Benjamin Button is drawn into World War 2. Fincher’s film wants to draw you into the characters and their relationship and unfortunately it never fully succeeds. I do not believe that it would have been more of a success if it had a more epic story as was hinted from the trailers but what The Curious Case of Benjamin Button needed was some character growth.
The really is not a lot to say about the characters of either Benjamin or Daisy. Benjamin grows from being a somewhat innocent boy in an old man’s body who falls in love instantly with Daisy. In the end he is an old man in a young boy’s body who still loves Daisy. Along the way he learns to enjoy life and watches some of his friends and family die. This is where the main conceit of the movie does not work. This same thing would have happened to anyone no matter how they age. On her deathbed, Daisy is passing along the story of Benjamin to her daughter by having her daughter read his diary out loud to her. It is only during her reading that Daisy’s daughter learns just how good of dancer her mother was. It is in this scene that I realized how little I liked the character of Daisy. I felt no attachment to her character and never once felt that the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy was that powerful or meaningful.
All of this is not to say that I did not take some enjoyment from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The relationships between Benjamin and Captain Mike and between Benjamin and Elizabeth Abbot were both somewhat intriguing. The characters within the old age home were also interesting. The special effects used to age Brad Pitt were very well done but in the end I walked away from Fincher’s film wanting more. Button and Daisy should have both changed mentally as well as physically and in the end this is where the movie failed.
The key to my appreciation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was in recognizing what its intentions were without burdening it with my own expectations of what they should have been. Benjamin Button is first and foremost a fairy tale; even when the subject matter touches upon the maudlin realities of aging, dying, and regret, it softens the edges with its magical flourishes and gold-lit delivery. The film nears three hours long but never lags, brimming with set-piece after set-piece of wondrous things to look at. The albeit unceasing voice-over still bears the markings of a fairy tale in its delivery, and with the exception of the present-day hospital scenes, the film is rightfully disconnected from the demands of realism. But every time Hurricane Katrina was evoked, every time a semblance of realism in the hospital reared its head, the illusion was temporarily broken. Big Fish, Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, the device of book-end reality is well-established in fantasy films, so I am willing to overlook it and give the film the benefit of the doubt as to its where its heart ultimately lies.
My first impressions of Benjamin Button was that for a fairy tale it was unusually restrained. Save for the main conceit of the film, a person aging in reverse (which is obsessively rendered through Fincher’s CGI lens), the world is one of nostalgic beauty more so than fantastical creatures and situations. Everything is exaggerated but not so much as to leave the realm of our world completely, and this suggestive reality and lack of irony may be why in this case so many critics deride Fincher as a coldly stoic filmmaker unable to capture real emotional complexities. It seems an easy criticism to make, and while I admit that the emotional effect of Benjamin Button never quite hit home for me, as a pantomime made up of ciphers controlled and actualized by Fincher, I was able to enjoy it on its own terms. I would have liked Benjamin to be a character of contradictions and minute character nuances, but this emphasis would have ran contrary to the world and story being depicted. I think Fincher was looking at him as a subject of time lapse photography, something that needed to stay relatively fixed, a one-note character which undeveloped allowed the elapsing of time to show acutely his transitions. Benjamin Button is an idea more than a person, and the film is a poetic musing on aging more than it is a romantic story about Benjamin and Daisy. Fincher is omniscient in the film, moving his characters around to convey this overarching theme. It may bother some for its on-the-nose delivery, but for me it worked fairly well. The short story was a sliver of an idea, and the film is an extension of that sliver, filling the frame with a myriad of events contained within a lifetime, although the particulars of the life remain less important than the cyclical nature of it.
Yet we endure nearly three hours watching the myriad of events in Benjamin’s life, and so there is a valid criticism that although symbolic, if they do not work at least partially on their own merit as story elements, then the whole is flawed. Time and again the voice-over was required to tell you that such and such was a pivotal point in the character’s life, and it was needed because nothing in the story would lead you to that conclusion independently. I am usually fine with voice-over but it was used to ridiculous lengths in this film and interfered with key plot points that should have been observed. While I love Cate Blanchett, her Daisy character was like a black hole in the film, the ice princess herself, Tilda Swinton, felt more of a human being than Daisy. This detracted from my enjoyment of their romance significantly. The hummingbird (Button’s equivalent to Gump’s feather) was also distracting and unnecessary. Parts of the film just creak like an old house, while others, such as the Elisabeth romance, have both story and vision aligning into something worthy of the subject.
In short, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a decent film which was unable to coalesce into something entirely worthy of its grandiose themes. It will be no where near my top ten of the year, but it is neither a bad film nor a blight on Fincher’s career.
(3.3/5) Looks like once again we’re all pretty much in agreement. While there is some slight varying degree in likability, for the most part The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was sort of disappointing all around; especially considering the love for Fincher around here. It turns out that Benjamin Button doesn’t really adhere to any relevance, hence little emotion or excitement is evoked. While it looks nice, it seems that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t all that curious. Still, it does have its moments and for some reason the film is likable, but certainly not a top ten contender.