Written by Eric Roth
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond and Tilda Swinton
Daisy: What’s it like growing younger?
Benjamin: Can’t say; I’m always looking in my own eyes.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON certainly has no trouble living up to its name. It is very curious indeed, for instance, how a man can be born to this world the size of an infant but with the physical affliction of a man at death’s door. It is remarkable that a two and a half hour epic can be so consistently beautiful to behold and breathtaking until its final moments. While it isn’t the least bit unusual to catch Cate Blanchett on top of her game, it is certainly impressive to see Brad Pitt exhibit such restraint and internalized inquisitiveness. It is definitely intriguing to witness a director as dark as David Fincher (ZODIAC, SE7EN, FIGHT CLUB) abandon the genre that made him who he is and side step into such a grand, romantic piece with such apparent ease and enthusiasm. But it is perhaps most curious how this film, where every element is so delicately placed and nurtured to a point where it borders on technical perfection, can be so cold and empty an experience despite itself.
Of course, within the context of the film, the curious thing about Benjamin Button is that he is aging backwards while all of humanity is progressing naturally. Benjamin must suffer through his childhood in the body of an old man who has already lived his life when he is really just discovering it. Too frail to participate, he must watch life happen from the front porch of the old age home that has taken him in. Here, he bears witness to life in its final stages and grows accustomed to the constant presence of death. His perspective is undeniably unique as he is always moving forward despite the reversed nature of his physical growth. Yet, this view and the wisdom it could bring are not shared with Benjamin’s most ardent observers, the audience. We are here for his story and the meaning it could bring to our relatively uncomplicated existences but instead, all we are given is the story itself. This amounts to little more than the long life of Benjamin Button, which would not be particularly different if it weren’t for the whole aging backwards thing.
It is one thing certainly to have all of the characters who encounter Benjamin accept him for who he is but that expectation is mildly unrealistic to ask of an audience. Still, this film has been bouncing around Hollywood for years for a number of reasons, not the least of which was figuring out how to make it look realistic. Fincher finally settled on having graphs of Pitt’s face drafted onto actors of different sizes and stature playing him at various stages of his aged infancy. The results are entirely believable and the makeup work, which so often detracts in such extreme cases such as these, is quite complimentary. And so visually, we buy into it. The performances also guide us to do the same as they are natural and heartfelt. And as if this weren’t enough to transport us to this historic, fantasyland, Claudio Miranda’s rich, contrasting cinematography does everything needed to fill in whatever gaps were left. With all this effort spent to make sure we believe what we are seeing, it is an awful shame that equal time wasn’t spent on giving us something to believe in.
I blame Eric Roth. With so many things going for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, I have to lay the blame somewhere and Roth is the easiest person to point at. Roth’s script is epic in proportion but minute in terms of purpose and meaning. Having proven his ability to carry people on long life journeys, such as that of FORREST GUMP, it is clear why he would be chosen to expand F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story into such a long film. In the process though, he took an unconventional concept and told it as conventionally as he could (did I mention that Benjamin’s entire story is read from a diary at Blanchett’s hospital deathbed). He created a character that is not so unlike the naïve Forrest. Benjamin is an observer of life; he watches it move forward from a perspective that none of us can truly comprehend and one that sadly, Roth and Fincher never allow us to see.