The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Movie Information

The Story: Benjamin Button is born with all the attributes of a man in his 80s, but the catch is that he ages in reverse, becoming ever younger as the years pass. The Lowdown: A sometimes charming fantasy made with a good deal of technical panache, but one that's strangely lacking in the kind of emotional resonance needed to put it over the edge.
Genre: Ambitious Whimsical Fantasy
Director: David Fincher (Zodiac)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  1. TonyRo

    This movie could easily have been trimmed down a bit. I did like it immensely though. David Fincher usually never lets me down and he maintains that track record here. I want to say it would break my top 10 of the year, but I doubt it. The special effects and the cinematography were pretty stunning.

  2. Ken Hanke

    David Fincher usually never lets me down and he maintains that track record here.

    The problem for me is that he does indeed maintain his track record for me as well, which is to say that he has yet to make a film I actually like. Of course, not all filmmakers are for everybody, and that may just be the case with Fincher for me.

    The special effects and the cinematography were pretty stunning.

    I don’t remember being especially awed by the effects, but the photography was pretty much first rate — not in the least because a great deal of it was achieved in a very simple manner, relying on a very old bag of tricks that often work better than their modern counterparts. (Some of the effects are on the old-fashioned side, too.)

  3. T_REX

    With all due respect to you Mr Hanke, did you come into the movie trying to find something to not like? I just saw the film today and I think it is one of the year’s best.

    On the flipside to your question is a question to me. Do I love this movie because of its theme about life, and how short it is? I was crying from scene one because I was with my mom as she was on her death bed.All of that might have pushed me to love this film but compared to the CRAP that comes from “Hollywood” you have to admit this film must be seen in a THEATRE and if it is not the film to get the oscar it sure is close.

    sorry for the bad grammer, lol, thanks for all the reviews, love it!

  4. cklwrkred

    My expectations were pretty high coming into this, and lowered by a bit coming out. The comparisons to Forrest Gump have been going around now, but I did feel a little more Big Fish in the movie, particularly the opening line “I was born under unusual circumstances” complete with deep southern accent.

    Maybe that’s a bit picky, but aside from the premise, nothing about the film really drawed me in (I did like Tilda Swinton though). There are a few missteps with make-up here and there, and really, Pitt just isn’t that good in this no matter how many accolades he receives for this. I tried to like, I did.

  5. Ken Hanke

    With all due respect to you Mr Hanke, did you come into the movie trying to find something to not like?

    Not at all. In fact, because of the type of film it appeared to be, I was seriously hoping to like it — despite my lack of fondness for Fincher’s work. In any case, it never moved me, never touched me, never did much of anything for me. Why? Well, I kind of said that in the review — it’s too distant, too clinical and objective in its approach, and perhaps it simply has too much Forrest Gump in it. Let me explain what I mean about it being distant, clinical and objective. Compare it to Be Kind Rewind or Slumdog Millionaire. These are both films where there’s a sense of urgency at work and there’s never any doubt that the filmmakers truly love their characters and are right in there with them. With Benjamin Button all I get is a sense of passivity and a director standing at a distance and going, “Hmm, this is interesting.” In that regard — resulting in the fact that I sat dry-eyed through the whole movie (something that cannot be said of the other two — even on repeat viewings) — the film isn’t even an also-ran for me for best picture.

  6. T_REX

    Agree to disagree I guess, and thanks for the reply.

    Since you mentioned Fincher, I happen to think he is one of our best directors. That could just be a generational thing but since “Seven” I have loved his work. “Fight Club” was like a religion for me, that was until it became a video game (WTF?) Dont forget his highly underated “The Game”.

    Between “Benjamin Button” and “Be Kind Rewind” I might have to agree with you because the latter showed the power of the cinema and how important it is to a community, large or small.

    Like any movie I walk out of ecstatic for I should take time and let it sit in., Maybe, come Oscar time I will like Button less. I did walk out of SpiderMan 3 thinking that it was great and fun, I saw it again and said “WTF, That was horribble!”

  7. Steven

    I think The Game is his worst movie, besides Alien 3. It just has way to many plot holes.

  8. Ken Hanke

    The Game is the only one of his films I haven’t seen, but based on the others I’m not running out to fix that.

  9. T_REX

    Based on what you have said about Fincher films I actually think you will like “The Game”. If I am wrong I will… be the one that has to change Carmike’s marquee every week for a year, for free! ( im sure I can win, you can’t think ‘the Game’ is worse than ‘Panic Room’ )

  10. Ken Hanke

    If I am wrong I will… be the one that has to change Carmike’s marquee every week for a year, for free! ( im sure I can win, you can’t think ‘the Game’ is worse than ‘Panic Room’ )

    Well, I don’t do marquee changes, so I wouldn’t get much out of winning. You may, however, but in error, because I realize I did once start watching The Game on one of the premium channels once. The operative word is “start.” On the other hand, I watched all of Panic Room, but then I was reviewing it and that changes the rules.

  11. Jim Donato

    David Fincher, eh? Well, I won’t be lifting a finger to see this one. One of my greatest cinematic regrets was having been convinced into seeing Se7en in spite of my initial antipathy. Never before had I been subjected to such a bilious pile of steaming misanthopy. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Fincher’s talents were best displayed with his “Respect Yourself” video for Madonna… and I can’t stand that woman.

  12. T_REX

    “David Fincher, eh? Well, I won’t be lifting a finger to see this one”

    Well I think Kevin Smith is bad filmmaker but still took a chance with Zack and Miri and loved it. Tones,visions, themes, etc can change during a a director’s canon, improve or worsen.

    Sorry to get off subject.

  13. Jim Donato

    Good point T-REX. I enjoyed the first and third Kevin Smith movies [Clerks, Chasing Amy] but really disliked all the others I saw [Mallrats, Dogma, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back] to the point now where the name Kevin Smith makes me wince. On the other hand, Joel Schumacher began his career as a directorial anathema to me. But I was willing to give Flawless, Phone Booth and Veronica Guerrin a chance and while they are not the best films I have seen, they evidence some artistic growth from the days of the turgid St. Elmo’s Fire.

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