The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tajari P Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemying, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Eric Roth
Much talk amongst movie reviewers from the blogosphere in the run up to the 2009 Oscars has centred on the praise and focus being given to Slumdog Millionaire. So little has questioned the startling thirteen nominations given to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film which has managed to plough through the past few months without ever worrying over getting itself into the key categories in all ceremonies. That’s not to suggest this isn’t a good film, but there seems to be little in the way of questions being asked as to how a film almost universally considered something of a disappointment has managed to so sturdily entrench itself among the best films of the year.
It is certainly ambitious, basing its near-three hour narrative on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald concerning a gentleman who is aging backwards, and visually stunning. That much seemed true before its release given the trailers and the presence of David Fincher, maybe the most visually proficient auteur working in Hollywood. His presence here both reassures and causes anxiety given the subject matter, something tailor-made for grand American filmmaking in a tradition stretching well into old-Hollywood. He is a brilliant director, capable of understanding the need to project bigger ideas whilst also maintaining a perfect attention to detail, reaching his synergetic apex with Zodiac two years ago. This film seems half perfect for him. The visual aspects and the attention to both period detail and the need for the actors to dive into their portrayals work well for him, but he never seemed right for capturing the deep emotional bonds between the two lead characters and, indeed, this is where the film fails.
This can’t all be laid at the door of Fincher. He does create a spell-binding world for the film to exist in and carries forward the narrative at a reasonable pace, managing to avoid you feeling the length too much. The problem primarily comes from Brad Pitt. He is fine as usual but he works better in films where he has to have a short-attention span and puppy-dog demeanour, even if it’s a particularly deviant puppy dog. Here, he has to carry emotional weight which he is unable to do. It seems somewhat as through he has failed to heed the advice exhibited by George Clooney who understands both his limitations and strengths. Pitt seems to think he has the ability to pull of a role like this when in fact he occupies a similar space to Clooney, only eternally younger. It makes him a very difficult and awkward forty-year-old. Cate Blanchett is better, managing to be quite elegant and strong in her scenes but never exhibits what the charm is that Button so falls for. Easily the best member of the cast is Taraji P Henson as Button’s surrogate/adopted mother figure. She exudes love and motherly compassion for her children, lending her scenes a weight which the writing doesn’t really deserve.
The script from Roth is so close to Forrest Gump – even included a line about his mother, Henson, saying to him that ‘you never know what you’re gonna get’ – that you feel certain sense of déjà vu in places but, in fairness to Gump, that film is visually less exciting but far more emotionally impactful. The big beats in Roth’s script just don’t earn the kind of emotion they seek from the audience and therefore there is little to take from this outside of admiring the brilliance of the technical filmmaking.
That’s not to say this isn’t worthwhile. Fincher’s direction is confident throughout, even if he failed to understand the strengths of his regular collaborator Pitt. A more powerful actor in the lead role would likely have pulled Blanchett’s performance up to scruff too and made a truly emotional, very-near masterpiece. Unfortunately, Roth’s screenplay and Pitt’s performance just don’t have what’s needed to prevent the moments of schmaltz from ruining what should have been something special.