DIR: David Fincher • WRI: Eric Roth • PRO: Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall • DOP: Claudio Miranda • ED: Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall • DES: Donald Graham Burt • CAST: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is equal parts extraordinary and so very ordinary. It encompasses the first and last breaths of a man and much of what passes in between, where, aside from his condition, he lives a life of struggle and joy that could characterise any life, fictional or otherwise. The grounds for presenting this tale to a medical journal are that our protagonist is born, with the dimensions of a baby but all the symptoms of an aged octogenarian. With each day, his body grows younger, at one point resembling the Brad Pitt we all know and for the remainder groundbreaking effects and make-up show Pitt’s Benjamin at various stages of enhanced youth while all those around him age.
It’s a gloriously subtle moment that clarifies what that this movie is about. ‘High concept’ aside, the movie simply tells the story of a life. On leaving the movie, it’s clear its description cannot be solely the story of a man ageing in reverse. Having worked through old age, Button, with the mindset of an adventure-seeking teenager and the body of a middle-aged man flies the coop. While the audience may wait for unorthodox developments, or for Button to have essentially different life experiences to any other, there comes a moment of clarity, through only a line of dialogue, when you are reminded of the most important detail of the movie; that he began life as naïve and unwary as anyone, whatever his medical ability might profess. None of the clichéd turns of phrase thrown about when prophesising about life are actually relevant. Benjamin points out simply that he has no greater perspective that anyone else. However unique his situation, he still lives life through only one set of eyes, his own.
The story is admittedly that of a unique man, not a unique rite of passage. He must learn as we do to not let differences define us and live our lives. The movie maps his travels and experiences for a time, but for all the wisdom he may have imparted to him and volume of life he experiences, there is a melancholic air to how he perceives his fate and its inevitability. The film finally turns so his fate consumes him – Benjamin and his true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) stand looking into a mirror, capturing that they have finally found each other at the right time. Then, in an instant, events begin to unfurl. Movies and novels are built around great moments like this and it is in imparting a message that the film succeeds most. As a solid piece of entertainment, however, it falls short.
The film is marketed to us as a love story. And indeed the film is littered with romantic cinematic moments, and there is an ease to the couple’s relationship during a beautifully shot ‘honeymoon’ sequence. Nevertheless, the romance, the conduit for much of the film’s message, is never wholly convincing. While events attempt to realistically portray a relationship that evolves, with Daisy and Benjamin ‘meeting in the middle’ to finally make things work, the events of their lives beforehand offer no convincing reason as to why they keep coming back to each other. Had they met for the first time when both of age, rather than at a time when their attraction comes across as unnerving – she a pre-teen, he looking like a 70-year-old man, their pairing might have been easier to empathise with. A symmetry does emerge at the end of the film so that their lives are fully entwined, but it is only for one segment of the film can we comfortably watch them as a couple.
The film is one of subtle movements. Some of these are to be praised; there are no over wrought breakdowns to assure Pitt of his Oscar®-nomination and neither do the aesthetics of the film, beautiful and all as they are, overwhelm the screen. Even the remarkable achievements with effects and make-up are not laboured. At one point Brad Pitt does almost literally walk off the set of his debut role in the TV series Dallas. This younger face though bears the sadness of a plight, not the opportunity of youth – the effect is to drive events. However, while this almost milquetoast attitude means the screen comes to light occasionally, lightning never actually strikes. Pitt’s performance is very restrained while Blanchett, though playing a much less passive character than Pitt, comes across as quite aloof. While the idea is expertly suggested, the alchemy of the film never works; its pace and consequence of events is never assured enough to grip you to the film. There is too little attention given to structuring a story or creating a sense of real drama that can engage. It seems as though David Fincher wants the film to be judged purely upon the delivery of its concept, to the detriment of other aspects.
The movie couldn’t but end as it does, but the route there is episodic and the story has a predictable air to it. The talent, quality and scale of this movie will give it resonance, its idea will give a topic for conversation, however, the conclusion of this conversation may well be an underwhelming verdict.