The Curious Case of Benjmain Button – Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson and Jason Flemyng. Directed by David Fincher. Rated M for sexual references and coarse language. 159 mins.
If youth is wasted on the young, then Benjamin Button has it made. He is born an old man, and spends his life aging backwards towards his teenage years, and eventually to a babbling baby boy. He will spend his twilight years in the body of a young Brad Pitt, a fate most of us could only pray for. But there’s always a catch. He has to watch everyone he loves grow old and die while he only gets younger and more attractive. Thankfully, the movie never descends into the high-concept comedy its premise threatens: “This summer, Rob Schneider is ‘The Old-Man Baby’!”
Benjamin Button is born in 1918, under ‘unusual circumstances’. You can say that again. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father abandons him on the steps of an old-age home. He is taken in by Queenie (Henson), a spirited woman with buckets of love and affection to spare. Baby Benjamin is believed to be on his way to the grave, but as the years pass, his body gets younger and younger. Is it miracle? Is it good luck? Is it bad luck?
A pre-teen Benjamin falls for Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the nursing home residents. Benjamin is told that he can’t be seen hanging around a little girl, for the obvious aesthetic reasons. However, Benjamin will eventually lose his wrinkles and Daisy will eventually grow into Cate Blanchett. In the future, there might be a small window of opportunity for these star crossed lovers to be together.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is tailor made to tug at the heart strings. Daisy and Benjamin may be able to meet in the middle of their lives, but they can’t grow old together. It’s a doomed romance if ever I’ve heard of one, but it’s not the tearjerker people are going to expect. This mostly has to do with Benjamin’s own passivity. He wanders through life like a tourist, seemingly bored by those living full lives around him. He’s detached from death, and, as the title implies, more curious of people rather than affected by them. “I was just thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is,” he tells Daisy late in the film. It really feels as if the great tragedy of his life is just ‘a shame’ to him, and little more.
By the end of the movie, Benjamin and Daisy’s doomed romance hasn’t really left a mark on us like we’d have hoped. The film is adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth. The two films share many similarities (the retelling of a life over the course of decades), and while Gump is more earnest and sappy, I’ll wager its central romance connected with audiences better than Ben Buttons.
It’s not that the incredibly talented David Fincher is the wrong man for the job. In fact, Fincher is probably the right man for any job (except Alien 3). The film is technically spectacular and beautiful to look at. I don’t believe it’s his fault that we can’t connect with Benjamin. Nor do I think its Brad Pitt’s either. He puts in an amazing performance, particularly in the beginning as a naive young boy. I guess this disconnect just comes with the territory. A man who ages backwards will never be able to bond to another person in a truly meaningful way. We can barely be expected to return affection that isn’t there.