The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes nearly three hours to unfold and every bit of it is depressing. As the story of a man aging backwards through time director David Fincher’s film is a failure; not much seems to happen and for a guy miraculously de-aging right before our eyes Benjamin is surprisingly uninteresting. As a panic provoking examination of death though, maybe he has something. Fincher’s movie seems to exist solely to remind us of our own mortality. It’s a series of constant, manipulative, downer bullet points which arrow towards the muddy grave we’re all headed for. Spending 3 hours in a darkened room meditating on your own eventual demise isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but getting that kind of thoughtful reaction is at least an of accomplishment of a type. In that sense Benjamin Button is deeply affecting, but because of the way it reminds us of unavoidably miserable things in our own future, not because of anything interesting happening on screen. Afterward, I suggest going home for a stiff drink. Scotch. Neat.
The film’s fascination with the ticking clock that is our lives begins right at the outset, as we meet our narrator. She’s the daughter of an elderly woman (Cate Blanchett under heavy prosthetics), lying on a hospital bed in front of her and clearly close to death. The fading invalid, gasping for air, asks her daughter to read from a mysterious journal and the daughter complies. While she reads, we’re told that hurricane Katrina is bearing down on their hospital. Yes we’re in a New Orleans, right before the 2005 disaster which left so many drowned and extremely dead. Oddly the approach of Katrina, while frequently referenced, never amounts to anything in context of the movie except as a way of adding the specter of even more mortal misery and allowing it to loom listlessly in the back of our heads like an overlong obituary.
As she reads the daughter discovers amazing things about the life lead by her mother and of a singular man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). As mentioned, Benjamin was born aging backwards. That’s not to say he popped out of his mother’s womb as a fully formed adult. Actually he looks sort of like one of the rubbery alien Muppets from the original Star Wars; a creature with all the size, proportion, and mental faculties of a newborn infant, but the wrinkled skin, arthritis, and pre-death health problems of an extremely elderly man. Everyone predicts that this freakish baby will soon be dead. He isn’t.
Abandoned by his father Benjamin ends up being raised by a kindly healthcare worker at a retirement home. Benjamin who, at the age of 6 looks like he’s 96, fits right in. Though he looks like he has one foot in the grave, every day Benjamin grows younger, stronger, and loses many of his troublesome wrinkles. Mentally he’s a kid, physically he’s an adult, and oh isn’t it depressing that he can’t live the normal life of other kids? I bet he’ll soon be dead.
Ben hobbles around as the narration shifts to his voice, Brad Pitt droning on in a slow, Louisiana drawl about the world as seen through his eyes. The world he sees is not one with a lot of excitement. Things seem to get moving in the latter half, when Benjamin is at least old/young enough to get up out of his wheel chair and hobble onto a tug boat, but there aren’t enough moments of wonder and enlightenment along Benjamin’s journey to justify it. He’s not exactly Forest Gump.
Worse, the most potentially interesting bits of Benjamin’s life are omitted entirely. We never see Benjamin as he nears his final years. What would it be like as an eighty-year-old man, with all the wisdom and world weariness of an aged soul trapped inside the body of a 20-year-old? A 16-year-old? What would it be like for Benjamin in those days, struggling to convince people he’s old enough to buy beer, rent an apartment, date a girl? You’d think with three hours of movie dedicated to Benjamin’s aging issues some film might be used in exploring these oddities, but it isn’t and we’ll never know. The film is limited to the story of a clueless child trapped in an old man’s body until at last Benjamin reaches middle age and then becomes pretty much like everyone else. From there on he’s simply Brad Pitt, in a mildly romantic love story with Cate Blanchett, one which we’ve already been told will not end happily.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t exactly disappointing, it’s only that I’m not sure why it was made. David Fincher, the masterful director of such films as Fight Club and Se7en is incapable of shooting something without any redeeming qualities. This movie, like everything else he’s done is well shot and capably acted. His special effects, while not the eye-popping wizardry some seem to be expecting, are good enough to do the job. The de-aging process primarily involves slathering Brad Pitt in an intimidating number of rubber prosthetics. Pitt succeeds in an adequate performance underneath all that makeup, a disguise which serves its purpose, though perhaps without any particular flair. Cate Blanchett is beautiful and ethereal as love interest Daisy though even her character, like everything else in this movie, seems incapable of providing anything uplifting or heart-warming.
It’s just that Benjamin Button is a tremendous downer, and a downer without any clear purpose. There’s nothing better than a well-crafted, downbeat movie with something worth saying. I don’t mind being depressed, just give me a reason for feeling as if my hourglass is nearly out of time or alternatively, offer some light at the end of the tunnel. Benjamin Button does neither. We get it Fincher, some day we’re all going to be dead. Now what?