Image source. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2008.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t the kind of film David Fincher usually makes. His best movies – The Social Network, Gone Girl, Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac – are snappy, cutting thrillers that thrive on energy and speed. Curious Case, on the other hand, is long (166 minutes – woo), slow, and not really interesting. We spend three hours watching Brad Pitt grow younger and younger, only to feel ourselves growing older and sleepier as the plot winds onward and onward. The movie carries all the stultifying weight of a Steven Spielberg epic, but without any resonant message to keep us grounded. The end result: utter tedium.
You wouldn’t guess it’d be this bad just from the source material, however. In fact, the entire plot-line stems from a potentially captivating premise: what if you were born old and got younger until you died a baby? That’s what happens to poor Benjamin Button (mainly Brad Pitt, but multiple actors play him throughout his various ages), so wrinkled even as a newborn that he finds himself instantly disowned by his disgusted father (Jason Flemyng). Found and raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the hardworking owner of a nursing home, Benjamin grows…well, younger. Eventually, after sort of getting the hang of his body, he decides to leave New Orleans and see the world. He travels to Russia, has passionate flings, struggles through the crossfires of World War II. But throughout it all, he can’t stop thinking about Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an accomplished ballerina he first met as a childhood playmate under his dining room table. When the tumult of the 30s and 40s finally dies down, he finds Daisy and, after several months of persistent wooing, starts a future with the love of his life.
But poor Benjamin, impeded by his peculiar condition, just can’t have a peaceful, normal family life like most people. This is the heart of Curious Case, the story of a man who experiences, better than anyone else, the transience of life’s most precious moments. Life, relentless and unforgiving, does not stop for anything; sooner or later, Benjamin will shrink away into childish oblivion, with neither the physical nor mental capacities to hold on to what truly matters to him. Unfortunately, the screenwriters get too absorbed in the initial quirkiness of the movie’s premise to do this message any justice. Instead of fully dealing with this core theme of ephemerality, they decide to waste precious time rigorously depicting every up and down of Benjamin Button’s “adventurous” life. Wow, everybody, look at that old dwarf playing tag with a seven-year-old girl! Look at him as he befuddles prostitutes with his amazing sexual prowess! Behold the spectacle!
Alas, said “spectacle” can only hold our attention for so long. Sooner or later, we start to wonder whether this movie has a point. It gets so bogged down in these disconnected, drawn-out details that its original premise feels little more than a stupid, eye-catching gimmick. And the few moments where the filmmakers actually remember to try to make something meaningful are poster children for the Blatant School of Filmmaking, thanks to the mushy score, uncomfortable close-ups, and pseudo-iconic dialogue we all know well from watching too many cliché movie trailers. By the end of this bungling misfire, if nothing else, you’ll at least have fully mastered the art of staring at your eyelids.
This movie got 13 Oscar noms, right behind only All About Eve and Titanic in the greatest number of Academy Award nominations ever. No wonder people say the Academy Awards are so messed up. The only virtue of Curious Case, if any at all, lies in its production values. Even if you find yourself staring at your watch halfway through, you have to admit the make-up and effects that transform Button over the years work pretty darn well. Fans of Pitt will find their favorite actor completely unrecognizable. Otherwise, the list of this movie’s award citations reads more like a list of shame. The score, cinematography, costume design? Unremarkable. Henson and Pitt? Decent, but not stellar. And the editing? Don’t even. The fair amount of star power here can’t save this entire wannabe epic from sinking straight into dismal mediocrity. Next time, Fincher should remember to hire a scriptwriter who actually knows what he’s writing.
Curious Case, in sum, is arrogant. It assumes the novelty of the premise will be enough to carry the viewers through for three dreary hours. Instead, it ends up being an unintentional promo for the Razzies. If you’re an adamant Pitt or Fincher enthusiast, I suppose you have to see this. But otherwise, Seven does a far better job of showcasing their skill.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji Henson, Tilda Swinton
Running Time: 166 minutes
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Cean Chaffin
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Eric Roth
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story of the same name.