The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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This is one of those movies I saw the preview for and decided on the spot that I was not at all interested, like I was with Million Dollar Baby. Then, like Million, it got two zillion awards nominations and I know I have to see it now. I dragged my companion, who is probably less inclined to see the movie than myself, and hoped for the best. Well, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no Million Dollar Baby. Million pulled out a wonderful movie in front of my cranky, disbelieving, unwilling eyes, and it stands the test of time. This movie feels forced and fake and, like Forest Gump, one to be over-lauded and then seen for what it is only too late. When did David Fincher (Zodiac, Se7en, Alien 3) become Ron Howard (Ransom, A Beautiful Mind, The DaVinci Code)? No disrespect to Howard, he’s a workman of his craft — and I loved Frost/Nixon — but he’s always come down on the gentle side of dramatic, whereas Fincher is an envelope pushing, dark-side cruising artist. Normally.

The repellant premise of Benjamin Button is that he was born old and ages backwards through linear time, so he grows younger as everyone around him wrinkles and sags and withers. Now, we can forgive the biological explanations of “age” versus “youth” and the law of conservation of mass — this is a movie, after all, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, and we suspend such Scroogery for the emotional metaphor such an idea should achieve. However, the real issue I had with the story was that time should teach us things, not reward our youthful foolishness with new reservoirs of potential and health and sexy vitality. Talk about a Hollywood fantasy! The lessons learned by the people in his life are more along the lines of “live a life you’ll be proud of,” and “it’s never too late to be what you might have been,” which doesn’t much address the counterclockwise life they touch, and is actually kind of deflated by Benjamin’s journey.

While an entire life (served up in over two and a half hours; you feel every minute) is a story, it’s not always a narrative, and this film suffers for that. It seems as though the story were longer than a novel, so stuffed is the film with tangential side characters. He himself floats through like a big squawking Metaphor while the people around him actually have stories. It was interesting to see people treat child-Benjamin as the wellspring of wisdom he outwardly resembled. It would have been interesting to have been let inside his experience — which, despite him narrating the freaking thing, somehow did not occur. I applaud the fantastic special effects employed to allow Brad to play himself as any age not actually in diapers. The use of an actor’s face on another’s body has always been awkward and obvious in the past, but here it’s perfect.

Cate Blanchett actually carried most of the acting burden in this film — all Brad Pitt had to do was wonder at the world around him and grow gradually more handsome. She shares the load with Taraji P. Henson (Queenie) and they make the film survivable. The old man who got struck by lightning was a welcome respite from the over-earnestness of the rest of the film. Sure, I cried at the end. I’m not a robot. But I cry at cat food commercials if they punch the right button. I was not having the “thank goodness I forced myself to see this” experience, but more of the mid-film backlash like I did with Forrest Gump. Looking at the filmographies of screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, it’s not surprising. I cried at Forrest Gump too, and I roll my eyes at its overratedness now. I’m sorry, I just can’t get on the Button train. I wish I could have obeyed my instincts and stayed home.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/25/08
Time in minutes 159
Director David Fincher
Studio Paramount/Warner Brothers