While I would recommend David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as worth-seeing, I simply cannot work up any great love for it. More curious than the case of Benjamin Button is the detached feeling of the movie. It’s well made—if at least 30 minutes too long—and the story is interesting. And I’m impressed that the premise of a main character who ages backwards works at all. But I don’t love the film, and by all rights, I should. This is a movie cut from the same cloth as Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Burton’s Big Fish (2005)—two movies guaranteed to choke me up at certain key moments. I can see exactly where such moments are in Benjamin Button, and I know I’m supposed to be feeling something, but I don’t.
I’ve been tussling with this ever since I watched the movie. I tried watching it a second time to see why I don’t think the film exactly works. The problem is that it’s too precise in its attempts to emulate other whimsical fantasies. There’s a sense of scenes and touches being included for no other reason than because something like them was in a previous film of similar tone. For example, Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), who makes the clock that runs backwards and presumably sets things in motion, feels like the Inventor (Vincent Price) in Edward Scissorhands. But he’s just there, and both he and the device disappear from the story for long stretches of time. There’s only the most perfunctory follow-through.
The whole first section of the film is a bit like warmed-over Big Fish—from the framing story with the daughter (Julia Ormond) learning the truth about herself and her dying mother, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), to the fantasticated account of the main character, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), in his own words. But where’s the point to the approach? Where’s the point to the whole Hurricane Katrina aspect of the framing story? The addition of the humming-bird imagery feels like it came out of Forrest Gump (1994) and that movie’s feather. Considering that Eric Roth wrote both movies, that’s not surprising, but the humming bird is connected with tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris), so why does it appear at Daisy’s deathbed window? It makes the film seem uncertain of its own identity—like things have been incorporated without any real understanding.
My initial reaction was to blame David Fincher’s direction. Whatever one thinks of his previous work—from Alien 3 (1992) through Zodiac (2007)—is there anything to suggest he’s the best person to go to for gentle fantasy? Come on, a light, whimsical touch has never been within a mile of a Fincher picture. And I do think this is a large part of the problem. Fincher’s too clinical, too interested in being precise and proficient to ever convey a sense that he feels anything for these characters. He’s got the mechanics down, but not the emotions. At the same time, Roth’s screenplay has much the same coolness of tone when it ought to be warm.
I’m probably conveying a much more negative feeling about Benjamin Button than I mean to. It’s a good film, even if it’s not a great one. The performances are solid, with Tilda Swinton’s turn as Benjamin’s first lover being more than that. She imbues her character with genuine mystery and a sense of sadness in a way no one else in the film quite does. The story is never less than intriguing, and it’s every inch a terrific-looking film. On a technical level, the film couldn’t be better. As fantasticated entertainment, it’s effective, and there are many scenes of great charm. But the film obviously strives to be more than simply entertaining. And, for me at least, it falls short of that goal. Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking.