Like Terrence Malick’s beautiful 1978 film DAYS OF HEAVEN (also available on Criterion DVD) THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (CCBB) is technically brilliant, visually majestic and an absolute masterpiece of modern film-making as far as the visual and auditory arts are concerned. Also like DAYS OF HEAVEN, it is fundamentally flawed and hobbled by poor scripting and some uncharismatic performances.
It is not a bad film, by any means, but it’s not one that will stand the test of time either. I saw the film before its Oscar run and was decidedly underwhelmed. First off, as a fan of F.Scott Fitzgerald, whose short story this film is supposedly based on, I was thoroughly confused as to why they bothered to associate the film with the popularly unknown work when they had ejected all but the most basic premise of the story. The original story is a quick, playful rumination on the idea of a life moving in reverse. Fitzgerald’s story has a full-grown old man, speaking perfect English and understanding his predicament, born to a frustrated and frazzled father who hesitantly keeps him, almost as an afterthought. There is little character development or background, just a basic description of Benjamin’s life from birth to death in a few satirical pages of typical Fitzgerald charm. There is no love story, no magical explanation and no epic scale. In fact, it’s almost more like a Mark Twain satire than a Fitzgerald story in its total unapologetic lack of fine detail. So why even use the story when you plan to make something so completely opposite the original? I guess the ‘street cred’ of ol’ F. Scott must be worth a hell of a lot more than I realized, enough so that name-dropping him by way of the title adds an air of ‘ooh-la-la’ come Oscar time.
Writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord jump off from Fitzgerald’s tale and create a lavish, generation-spanning love story, replete with WWI, WWII and Summer Of Love references, a non sequitur of a supernatural bookend involving a magic time-warping clock and more historical mugging than you’d expect from a Forrest Gump sequel. In fact, that seems to be where the real influence lies. Roth just so happens to be the man who wrote the screenplay for FORREST GUMP. I have seen the jokes, comments and YouTube videos comparing the two films and, while I won’t rehash them here, I will say that anyone who has seen both films and is the slightest bit aware, will be able to see the thematic similarities, if not the outright self-plagiaristic elements lifted directly from GUMP. I certainly understand how, just like with rom-coms, sitcoms and gross-out comedies, a little copycat action goes a long way towards making audiences feel comfortable and subdued with something they find familiar. In my opinion, that doesn’t stand-up when you start angling for writing awards and proclaiming a film a ‘new classic’. The bottom line is that CCBB is well-tread territory, filled with stock characters, worn-out clichés and sad stereotypes that play well on date night at the GoogolPlex 11, but it doesn’t warrant the kind of acclaim that the Hollywood PR Machine wants to heap on this film to increase their revenue stream.
That being said, there are a great number of things that are absolutely wonderful about CCBB. Many of the supporting players, despite being saddled with bland stereotypes as characters, shine through and charge the screen with talent. The always reliable Jason Flemyng imbues Thomas Button with a palpable sense of dread, remorse, insecurity and self-loathing in a very few short scenes. Likewise, Taraji P. Henson shines as Buttons adoptive mother, Queenie. Rampai Mohadi injects a jolt of whimsy in the first act of the film as a mysterious new friend who imparts sage wisdom and sets Benjamin on his path to adventure. Tilda Swinton is underused, but pitch-perfect as Benjamin’s first real lover. Jared Harris, more than any other player in the film, brings such emotion, depth and bravado to his role that I would have much rather seen a ‘Captain Ahab’ Man vs. Sea story featuring his Captain Mike.
The reproductions of the various historical eras are spot-on, and the major FX sequences in the middle of the film are very well done. The digital effects creating young Benjamin are truly amazing and so seamless that you instantly buy into the concept of the wrinkled old man skin on a 5 year-old body, and Brad Pitt’s performance through the first section of the film is astonishing. He captures the innocence and wide-eyed wonder of childhood and the mannerisms forced on us by old age. Had the film stayed in this mode and maintained the whimsical, almost-magical feel of the first act, it may well have been a classic. The first 1/3 even ½ of the film is exceptional. The bottom falls out once it shifts gears from the story of a man growing backwards to a standard love story between a digitally buffed and polished Brad Pitt and the ever-angelic Cate Blanchett. The chemistry seems to fall flat and Pitt, so thoroughly perfect in the first part of the film, seems to falter and lose his charisma once it turns into another leading man role. This certainly seems to be his Achilles heel, as he is consistently amazing in smaller character parts and unusual roles like Tyler Durden, Detective Mills, Mickey O’Neill or even Jesse James. It never seems to fail, however, that as soon as he’s expected to play the romantic lead in films like MEET JOE BLACK and LEGENDS OF THE FALL, he comes across flat and uncharismatic. Consequently, the chemistry between Pitt and Blanchett suffers. There’s also the fundamental creep factor of watching Button as an old/young man, playing with the little girl who will become Blanchett, then seeing a slightly younger old man discover prostitutes and sex when Blanchett’s character is still fresh in our minds as a young girl. When they do finally get together, it’s hard to get over the idea that this is still a very young woman and a much older man. The very laws of nature seem to go against it and they seem continually mismatched. It doesn’t get any better when an aging Blanchett is reintroduced to a 17 year-old looking Pitt. Because their ages and their maturity levels never seem to match, neither do they. The entire romantic subplot is a bust and filled me with frustration for the last ½ of the film, especially watching two actors as talented as Pitt and Blanchett, floundering through no fault of their own. Much more suited to the story and the conceit of Benjamin’s ‘curious case’ is the initial love affair with Tilda Swinton and their characters have so much more of a comfortable synergy. I really think that, had Roth and Swicord left out the Forrest/Jenny factor, the film could have gone in so many more interesting directions and been a magnificent piece of new cinema.
Most notable of all, David Fincher, visual master director and innovator of SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB, ZODIAC and the vastly underrated PANIC ROOM, brings his talents away form the usual hardcore thrills and suspense of his earlier films and mellowed his style enough to deliver a soft-spoken, magnificently crafted piece of filmmaking. Every scene is laid out perfectly, filmed with precision and edited in keeping with the slow southern flow worthy of the first half of the film. Fincher is sure and steady and, until the romance brings down the plot, he shows remarkable talent as a filmmaker. Look for one of his next films to hand him a little gold man. Just like P.T. Anderson proved with THERE WILL BE BLOOD and Aranofsky with THE WRESTLER, Fincher has given his statement that he is ready to join the ranks of America’s truly great directors.
Crave Factor – 7
Finally getting to the features on this Criterion Collection set, the Feature Disc has an insightful and thorough commentary from Fincher and the exceptionally beautiful transfer of the film including a DTS track that, while mostly unnecessary, gives the WWII scenes in the center of the film unexpected power on home video. Disc 2 features a 3 HOUR LONG documentary called ‘The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button’ which is broken down in three ‘trimesters’ and ‘birth’. While no doubt interesting and (in the hour I managed to sit through) highly informative. I have a hard time getting through a making-of documentary that is 20 minutes longer than the film. Still, as expected, Criterion is the benchmark of quality presentation of ‘Arthouse’ Cinema and this 2-disc Blu-ray release of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is no exception.
Crave Factor – 7
Video / Audio
Crave Factor – 9
In the end, I have to say that, while unfortunately falling short of ‘classic’ status on account of the scripting problems and misfired love story in the second half of the film, this is still very much worth watching, even owning. Keep an eye on director David Fincher for big things to come and pray for Brad Pitt to move more towards interesting characters and away from pretty-boy leading man roles. Like Johnny Depp, he could easily be one of our greatest actors, if only he can avoid being pigeon-holed by his looks.