Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Charlotte Observer
In 32 years of reviewing movies, I've never seen a film less faithful to its source material than “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Director David Fincher and writer Eric Roth borrow a motif from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story – a man ages backward – and turn it into a “Forrest Gump” ramble through the 20th century, with the central character stumbling innocently through war, love and other adventures.
Fitzgerald's Button was born during the first year of the Civil War and sank into babyhood at the end of the Jazz Age. The author was writing a metaphor about America's decline from a grown-up nation wrestling with colossal issues to a juvenile society infatuated with sports, whiskey and the talkies.
Fincher and Roth start the story in the last year of another war – World War I – and move the setting from Baltimore to New Orleans. There a button manufacturer named Button (Jason Flemyng) sees his wife die in childbirth and leaves the monstrous infant on the steps of an old-age home managed by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).
She adopts little Benjamin, who grows by the age of 10 into a slightly deaf chap who seems to be 70. By the age of 20, he's acquired more vigor in his body and more color in his hair. He embarks on a voyage with blustering boat captain Mike (Jared Harris), has a tentative sexual relationship with a quiet woman (Tilda Swinton) while visiting Russia, but keeps alive his passion for teenaged Daisy, which becomes less perverse when he loses a few years and she grows into Cate Blanchett. They seem destined for each other, but the passing of time brings cruel discrepancies in their ability to love each other.
Roth's greeting-card-deep philosophy can be summed up in the bluntest of aphorisms, and his use of a hummingbird to represent the souls of the departed makes Forrest's magical floating feather seem subtle. (Roth wrote both screenplays.) He sets the end of the film irrelevantly amid the onset of Hurricane Katrina, which is like using the World Trade Center's fall as local color for a romance placed in Greenwich Village. (Maybe he's trying to say we are born into trouble and die amongst woes, so we must snatch happiness where we can. If so, don't enlighten me.)
Yet Fincher, whose dark work in “Zodiac” and “Seven” could hardly have prepared anyone for “Button,” brings gravity to this cozy fable. Even the most magical element – the designing of a grand clock that runs backwards, presumably affecting Benjamin's natal day – comes after the death of the clockmaker's son, and that lovely work of art is later seen rusting in a warehouse. Souls may fly upward to eternal bliss, but bodies decay and buildings crumble, and Fincher wants us to keep that in mind as well.
Pitt does a lovely job of maintaining Benjamin's naïveté and joy over the decades, and the visual effects and/or makeup used to superimpose his face on other folks' shrunken bodies is technically miraculous. It took me aback to see the 39-year-old Blanchett and slightly older Pitt (he turned 45 last week) as they looked in their early 20s, with faces unlined and dewy. Only Queenie barely seems to age, but Henson is so appealingly calm and maternal that I didn't mind. (The role must've been a joy for her after a series of loudmouths, tramps and hookers.)
Button's length will divide audiences: Some people at the preview screening wondered whether the film needed to sprawl within 13 minutes of three hours, while others thought the time had flown by.
But unlike “Gump,” which seemed bloated at 142 minutes because it made the same point again and again, “Button” has a wide-eyed innocence that almost never palls. It strays far from the mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but often enough it came near to my heart.