I’ve been hearing about way too many people absolutely soaking their pants over this movie, so I really need to get to the point on this one; The Curious Case for Benjamin Button is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. It is, in fact, a rather bad movie, and a large disappointment, considering the pedigree involved. So who is to blame? Well, it’s hard not to count that on everybody, for agreeing to be involved in this ill-advised production, but the problem, first and foremost, is the writing from Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth.
Roth “adapted” the film from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, unread by me. I say “adapted” because it is to my understanding that the only thing the movie and the story have in common is that there is a man with a silly name who ages backwards. So we can stop accepting the excuses from ardent fans when we criticize the film’s poor plot: “Hey man, it’s based on Fitzgerald.” Not even Zelda would have been crazy enough to think this was a good idea. Fitzgerald had the good sense when writing it to make it a comic farce as opposed to a heartwarming fable for the ages, probably right around the time he envisioned a movie version featuring 80-year-old CGI Brad Pitt with the body of a 7-year-old crying for his mommy in a Louisiana accent. So you can credit those stupid touches, like making Benjamin’s father having a BUTTON factory to Roth. And doesn’t that make it so much worse?
But Fitzgerald’s story was clearly not the only inspiration for this high profile disaster; as I was watching it, I often leaned over, whispering to my girlfriend the film’s similarities to Forrest Gump (“You never know what’s coming” equals “Life is like a box of chocolates”, etc.). Turns out I’m not the only genius to put this one together, and it also turns out that the similarities are far more than just cosmetic. I won’t get into it here, and instead direct you to James Preston’s hilarious and absolutely dead-on comparison piece here. (UPDATE: a great video comparison here). So Roth adapted Button around his own screenplay template, apparently. “Too bad he’ll have no one to sue over it,” one friend quipped.
Unfortunately, this new film shares with the old a sense of cloying sentimentality, which is the last thing you’d expect from David Fincher as a follow-up to his brilliant Zodiac, but none of anything else that makes the former so appealing. Button is practically without humour, so it trudges along for it’s inflated, practically 3 hour run time soaked in its own seriousness. And it is without a compelling leading man as Brad Pitt is, unfortunately, in over his head. Not a terribly strong actor, he’s best when he plays within his range and to his strengths: cocky, charming, witty, handsome, in control. Here, he’s given an impossibly challenging character to play, and while he certainly salvages his dignity, his limits are apparent. Expect, however, countless accolades for his Gollum impersonation.
The story simply does not work as a film. In it, we have early scenes where Button appears to be a septuagenarian, and he begins to fall in love with a 10-year-old girl, his age in spirit but unfortunately not in any other practical way. During a particularly romantic scene under a table, they are discovered by the girl’s grandmother, who tells Benjamin that he ought to be ashamed of himself. Well, I know we’re supposed to see this as the inherant tragedy in his life, but you know what, it IS creepy to see them like that. It’s creepy to see a little girl fall for an old man, even if she can sense how old he really is, and I was uncomfortable watching them flirt. And then, when they finally marry (luckily they meet halfway and marry when they both look like the Movie Stars they are!), and Benjamin begins to regress into childhood, I found it incredibly unsettling to watch Blanchett read him bedtime stories, and wondered what she felt like changing his diapers. Some may find this a very deep concept, and true to life. Yes, some may say, that IS what would happen. How tragic life is! But then they may suddenly realize that life is NOT like this, and never will be. These are things that we will never have to deal with. So what are we supposed to take from the story? That as we grow older, we become more helpless? That life is cruel and you can’t always get what you want? Sure, fine. That you have to abandon your wife and child because you don’t want them to watch you grow into a screaming infant? I’m not so sure.
Which brings me to one of my biggest problems of the movie, which is this: that most everyone around Benjamin DO NOT SEEM TO NOTICE that he’s aging backwards. We get a lot of early scenes, as he matures from an elderly man into a slightly less elderly man, and those around him say things like “What’s your secret Benjamin? You seem to be aging BACKWARDS! Chortle, chortle”. That’s all well and good for the first few years. But when he starts to ripen into the Brad Pitt we know today, most don’t seem to notice. And those that do…well, they don’t have much to say about it. They just seem to accept it as a fact, and move on. They’re so set on dealing with the repercutions, that they don’t ever deal with the white elephant in the room. Boy, I would have killed for Cate Blanchett to have just a moment where she would say “So…what’s up with you aging backwards, anyway?” He wouldn’t have an answer, to be sure, but I don’t buy a world in which nobody finds this curious, except apparently the fucking title.
What’s most startling about Button, however, is its complete anti-climacticism. I know this is an inevitability in a story like this, because it’s kind of the point, but there’s no reason that the film actually has to become less compelling. This goes back to the old argument I had with a friend once, in which I commented about a film, “This is really bad”, and he responded with “It’s supposed to be!”, and so I said “Oh. That doesn’t make it any better.” In Button’s youth (or golden years, depending on how you see it) he works on a tugboat, fights in WWII, has an affair with a married woman and other things of varied interest. Then, around the end of his life, he gets married to his life-long sweetheart (a fine Cate Blanchett), and lies on his bed listening to the Beatles. Very little happens at the end of his life, leading up to the last scenes, where he turns into a child. And this is something else that really irks me: when he is born, he is the size of a baby, but with the body of an old man. Therefore, it stands to reason that he would grow into a baby the size of an old man? But no, he becomes a child again, presumably for scenes where Cate Blanchett can hold a beautiful baby, and we can ponder the bittersweet nature of life! Boo. I hate it when a movie refuses to play by its own rules.
But that’s the name of the game with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as Roth skirts over any detail in the film that would cause him to actually have to come up with a good solution to a problem, and settles for the easy way out with everything. You may be interested in this film at the beginning, but slowly and surely a feeling with set in that Roth and Fincher are just spinning their wheels, and that there is no way this film can possibly end satisfactorily. And it doesn’t. Hope I didn’t ruin it for you.