Audiences are likely to be seduced by story. The film does hold moments of gripping entertainment, but despite the inventive story conceit, this "Button" merely serves as colorful decoration.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Directors: David Fincher
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy .... producer Frank Marshall .... producer
Writers: Eric Roth (screen story) and Robin Swicord (screen story)
Features: Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Running Time: 167 Min. In US theaters: December 25, 2008
Cate Blanchett ... Daisy
Brad Pitt ... Benjamin Button
Tilda Swinton ... Elizabeth Abbott
Julia Ormond ... Caroline
Elias Koteas ... Monsieur Gateau
Jason Flemyng ... Thomas Button
Donna DuPlantier ... Blanche Devereaux
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Review
In 1994, there came a faux-biopic about a simple-minded man named "Forrest Gump." That film went on the score six Academy Awards (it was nominated for 13) and has served as the faux-biopic template for more than a decade, inspiring countless films. Since then, Hollywood indulges in churning out a fictional biopic every few years or so, usually to serve as fodder for the Academy Awards. Whether its Francis Ford Coppolla’s "Jack" or the Richard Dreyfuss Oscar-bait vehicle "Mr. Holland’s Opus," each film follows the same basic formula.
Upon watching David Fincher’s "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," it’s rather clear that, like many faux-biopics before it, it’s modeling itself after "Forrest Gump." The film follows a young boy, Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who’s born an old man (he’s nearly 80 by physical definition). He’s forced to live his life backwards, enjoying the fruits of old age first, robbed of a real adolescence. He falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and their love lasts a lifetime, despite being apart for a large portion of the time. Of course, he encounters all manner of strange things in his life, from meeting celebrities, spies and even fighting a key battle in World War II. Benjamin becomes quite rich only to give the money away and he even goes on a long, expansive journey towards end of the film and, like Forrest before him, this journey yields similar results.
One could very easily get wrapped up in the film’s emotionally haunting story. While a touch bloated at times (the film runs nearly three hours), "Benjamin Button" is expertly shot by auteur David Fincher ("Zodiac"), who’s keen visual kinetics lend well to the film’s Grimm fairytale narrative. The performances are also wonderful. Brad Pitt delivers a spot-on New Orleans accent and gives much emotional weight to his character. Cate Blanchett does the same. So does the supporting cast. The film’s score, from French composer Alexander Desplat, is quite exquisite, beautifully painted with poetic violins. Even the makeup effects are Oscar worthy. Brad Pitt is painstakingly changed from his current age to a wobbly man just hours from death. It’s an incredible transformation that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.
But, despite its glimmering gloss and A-list Hollwood cast, "Benjamin Button" is not a good film. Further examination will expose that while the core idea behind the film was borrowed from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name, the plot itself bares little resemblance. In fact, the film more closely resembles "Forrest Gump," so much so that certain scenes translate the very same ideas and core themes (Benjamin learns to walk, fights in a war, makes friends with shady figures, gives his money away, falls in love with his grade school crush, etc.). It certainly doesn’t help matters that "Button" screenwriter Eric Roth is the very same man behind "Gump’s" curtain. That’s right, both films are scripted by the same person.
It seems that Roth enjoyed the template, ideas and themes behind "Gump" so much that he decided to return to them, barely adding anything new, other than a slightly more fantastical edge and subplot about New Orleans. Unfortunately, the new additions to the "Forrest Gump" construct often cause the film’s biggest problems.
Pitt’s Benjamin continues to get younger throughout the film. This forces several difficult decisions to be made by the film’s core characters. It also alters the history of Daisy’s daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), who’s reading Benjamin’s story in the present. Caroline serves as a Kathy Bates-type character, from "Fried Green Tomatoes," but she never grows emotionally like that character did. Rather, she simply learns of Benjamin Button and confronts her dying mother, but is given no real resolution to her character at all.
Sadly, there isn’t a single character, minor or major, that’s really given a decent finale throughout the film. Instead, we are treated a weak narrated bits from Pitt who says such cliché, empty things as "You need to live life to its fullest," "It’s never too late to restart your life," and "Sometimes we’re on a collision course for one another." Sounds like "Crash" to me.
Audiences are left depressed by the resolution of the narrative, wanting more instead of less. There’s no real sense of dramatic irony to the finale, like one would see in a Grimm fairytale. There’s also no sense of optimism either, like with Roth’s "Gump." There’s a "Titantic"-like moment towards the end of the film that cues the film’s final stretch, but it’s so wrought with cliché it’s hard to take the moment seriously.
Instead, the film gives way to the New Orleans template, which is really only there to serve as a third act conflict for Daisy’s daughter, as hurricane Katrina paves it’s deadly war path on the historically-infused city. In some ways it proves symbolic to the narrative, in other ways, it’s trying to hold its own symbolic weight. Neither pays off. Audiences are lead into a finale with no direction whatsoever. There’s little payoff given and what little payoff exists is so dramatically underplayed by the cast, one wonders if more was meant to exist.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a solidly played film with a great cast and a wonderful director, all of which have been seduced by a tiresome, bastardized retread of story, as scripted by Eric Roth. Audiences are likely to be seduced as well, at least until they leave the theaters. The film does hold moments of gripping entertainment, but despite the inventive story conceit, this "Button" merely serves as colorful decoration.
Film Report Card:
Entertainment Value: B
Film Value: D+
Need more proof that "Button" is similar to "Gump," here's a fun video (though I must admit, I'm one of the first people ever to note these similarities):
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----R. L. Shaffer