The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau .  Viewed at the Riviera Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA.

David Fincher’s new film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would seem to have a lot going for it.  It is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, is written by Oscar winner Eric Roth, and is the new David Fincher film.  It is sad then to proclaim that the film falls short of some lofty expectations.

The story is transported from Baltimore in the story to New Orleans.  Opening in a hospital in New Orleans where an old woman is dying, her daughter reads to her the diary of Benjamin Button as Hurricane Katrina is heard crashing all around outside.  Benjamin’s mother dies giving birth to him and his father abandons him on the steps of an old folks home where Queenie (Tarajii P. Henson) takes him in to raise as her own.  Benjamin (Brad Pitt) will not last long the doctor tells Queenie as he appears to have all the signs of old age.  However, years begin to go by with Benjamin in a wheelchair, then on crutches, progressively getting younger.

At an early age Benjamin learns to let go as new occupants enter the home replacing the ones that have passed away.  He makes friends with the niece of one of the old women at the home and they are destined to be together, but not yet as she has the appearance of a little girl and he has the appearance of an old man.  As Benjamin gets older he takes up with a tugboat captain, has an affair with a married woman and waits for Daisy (Cate Blanchett) until they reach an age more suitable for them to be together.

The film is thick with symbols and meaning conveying the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, the importance of letting go, and the sentiment that nothing lasts.  If not for some poor decisions this might have been a wonderful film.  The film’s biggest flaw is its frequent flash forwards to Daisy in the hospital and her daughter reading Benjamin’s diary to her.  A couple of flash forwards are warranted, but how many reminders do we need that the daughter is reading the diary?  It is terribly distracting and takes us out of the story after which it takes time to enter back into it.

The film recalls Forrest Gump and has many of the same magical touches, (Eric Roth was the writer for that film as well) but is less cute than that film, but it also lacks Gump’s strong lead performance and its sense of humor which were key to that film’s charm.  The humor in Benjamin Button gets old, like the old man who got hit by lightening seven times, yet it is only funny maybe the first three times.  Like Gump film seems to work as a sort of surreal view of the past, and the cinematography beautifully conveys this in New Orleans, New York, Paris, and Russia before 1960.  There is something unreal, and slightly magical looking in these places, however, this is lost as the film moves up to present day.  The film would seem to work better if this surreal mood were kept throughout.  Also, like Gump, Benjamin is a very passive character so it hurts the film that his life is rather ordinary.  Benjamin does not seem to do things, but things happen to him, but not a lot of things to make interesting for three hours.  It also does not help that Benjamin’s later years, when he is young, are kind of glossed over.  It makes it seem as though he did nothing of interest in these years.

However, there are many brilliant things about this film.  The entire film is a technical marvel.  Brad Pitt does a solid job as Benjamin, but it is Cate Blanchett as Daisy who really impresses, convincingly taking Daisy from teen ballerina to old mother while capturing the pangs of losing our youth.  The film itself has some brilliant sequences as when Benjamin is describing the fragility of the moment and how any number of things happening differently could have changed that moment.  It is poignant and Fincher handles it beautifully.  On the whole, this film is worth seeing, but falls short of the great expectations surrounding it.

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