THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON begins with a story about a clockmaker who built a clock for a New Orleans train station…a clock that ran backwards. His wish was that time could be pushed backwards, and that those we’ve lost in our life’s journey could return to us. Such a wish is pointless, because what the rest of the film goes on to show us, is that you cannot fight the strength of time. Everything will only happen exactly when it is supposed to.
Too bad the film takes so very long to get to the point.
By way of his diary, we learn about the life of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). Benjamin was born with the look and physical limitations of an 85-year-old. Panicked and grief stricken, his father leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home. Here, tiny Benjamin is taken in and adopted by Queenie (Taraji Henson), who cares for him as the mother he never got to know. Strangely, Benjamin defies all expectation and survives year after year, surprisingly getting more and more able with each passing day. Indeed Benjamin is physically aging in reverse, his body getting younger with time.
While in the nursing home, he meets Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett). Since they are about the same age inside, they form a close friendship, which of course is initially frowned upon. It’s around this time that Benjamin finds himself able-body enough to work on a tugboat, which likewise leads to him discovering the vices of women and alcohol that most teenagers would discover around this point in their life. As World War II breaks out, the tugboat finds itself recruited by the American Military, and soon enough Benjamin is facing the horrors of war.
Upon returning from the war, Benjamin’s life is forever shaped by two events. The first is the fact that his father comes to find him, begging forgiveness. When he and Benjamin make amends, he leaves Benjamin his factory and estate – quickly making Benjamin a rich man. The other event is when Daisy returns to the nursing home. Benjamin is even more enchanted with her now as a young woman than ever before, and spends the rest of his life holding a special place in his heart for Daisy. Their story is a relationship that will bend in so many different ways through time, and will take a trying turn as Benjamin continues to get physically younger.
BENJAMIN BUTTON isn’t a bad movie – to be clear, I liked it. All the same I don’t believe it’s as good as it could have been. The movie was poorly paced, and as such feels so. very. long. This comes as a surprise, since the movie is based on a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald…you’d think such a literary tidbit could be adapetd in a running time less than three hours. I’ve never been one to shy away from an epic, but the story seems far too content to linger on Benjamin and Lucy during their “middle age”.
While it is the point of their story where the romance is at its peak, it also feels like the dullest point. I was delighted by Benjamin’s early life in an old body, and fascinated by the end of Benjamin’s life when he is a child. Unfortunately, Old-Ben-as-a-child isn’t paid much more than lip service. The movie gives it a ten minute nod and then proceeds to wrap things up. The story of people watching their loved ones become a shadow of their former selves is a heart wrenching one – seeing that story play out when the loved one disappears into childhood would be extraordinary. Why it was glossed over is beyond me.
Perhaps the greatest sin of the film feeling so unfocused, is that it wastes some truly wonderful performances – most of them from the women in the cast. Cate Blanchett provides another command performance as Daisy, maturing from carefree bohemian to weather-worn wife and mother. There’s also the intoxicating performance by Tilda Swinton, who arrives at the end of the first act playing Elizabeth, Benjamin’s first romantic affair. Most delightful though, is the role played by Taraji P. Henson. She has an honest caring and nurture to her that spills right off the screen. As for Brad Pitt, he achieves some of his best work here, and perhaps the reason the movie lingered so long on Ben at middle age was because nobody wanted to lose Pitt as they inevitably would have to when Button got younger.
The movie contains some gorgeous scenes – specifically the naval battle the tugboat gets involved in, and Daisy’s seductive ballet pictured above. But the memorable moments are too scattered to really build any momentum. Director David Fincher seems to be too in love with the character of Benjamin Button to give his story any real focus. The film does indeed play out like the pages of a diary come to life, but every diary has a boring entry or three, and a better director might have skipped those pages to shape a better story.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a brilliant two-hour film that has been stretched into an adequate three hour film. Its messages of love, life and loss get muddled, and the rich look of the film loses all impact. I can’t help but get a smile at the fact that a film so very obsessed with the concept of time makes its biggest mistake by going on too long.