Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Note: This article was originally published in Technician on January 12, 2009.


Button's disabilities aren't really that big of a deal

At least, that seems to be the message promoted by Hollywood’s latest entry into Oscar-season, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.   Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film follows a man (Brad Pitt) with one unique attribute: he ages backward.  However, based on how he’s treated by other characters, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

Indeed, most of the people that meet Benjamin don’t realize his peculiar state of being.  His friends and family don’t seem too interested in even asking what it’s like to grow younger.  The only person who seems to give it the attention it deserves is his one true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and that’s because it could have catastrophic effects on their relationship.  Director David Fincher and writer Eric Roth seem much more concerned with telling a story about how other people affect Benjamin, rather than on how he and his condition affect others.

Roth is perhaps best known as the writer behind another film about a man with a unique condition:  Forrest Gump.  Structurally speaking, Benjamin Button is virtually identical.  Boy has condition.  Boy meets girl.  Boy can’t be with a girl for a while.  Boy has some extraordinary life experiences.  But even though both films deal with similar ideas, they are two vastly different pieces of work.  Whereas Forrest Gump played out like a fable, with a considerable amount of coincidence and charm, Benjamin Button stays fairly close to reality. It’s a much darker and more somber film, and perhaps this is for the best.  After all, it’s hard to turn difficult themes like life, death and the nature of aging into light-hearted fare.  Don’t expect Benjamin to encounter people like shrimp-lovin’ Bubba or have a hand in shaping U.S. culture and politics.  His experiences arguably aren’t that much different from yours and mine.

As a result of this more grounded tone, Benjamin Button lacks the replay value of Forrest Gump, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a work of art in its own right.  Technically, this is Fincher’s finest achievement since Fight Club.  From the gorgeous cinematography to the inspired use of different film stocks, it’s clear he’s growing as a filmmaker.  Pitt and Blanchett give pitch-perfect performances, though one wonders if that’s due mainly to their own abilities or the ground-breaking effects work.  It will be a travesty if this film doesn’t walk away with an Academy Award for visual effects, because never before has the use of makeup and CGI felt so natural.  You’ll come away believing that this is exactly how Brad Pitt looked when he was 17, and how he will look when he’s 80.

If anything is missing, it’s that added bit of sentimentality that Forrest Gump had sprinkled throughout.  For a film about growing younger, it’s frustratingly hesitant to provide any insight into what this is actually like.  On the whole, Benjamin is no different from you or me, and his life takes no fairy-tale turns.  Perhaps that’s the point – we all have to die eventually, despite some of us having more unique ways of getting there.