It’s a brilliant premise, certainly, one that sparks interest and brims with potential, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not faring well with the critics. Does David Fincher’s latest offering really deserve the mauling it has received almost across the board in the UK?
Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies dying of old age in a New Orleans hospital. In her final hours, as Hurricane Katrina descends on the city, her daughter reads to her from the diary of one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man born under unusual circumstances.
Frail, wrinkled and riddled with arthritis – a baby-sized old man – Benjamin is rejected by his horrified father and abandoned on the steps of an old people’s home. Raised among the elderly and told he does not have long to live, Benjamin assumes he is just like everyone else there, until he discovers that he is ageing backwards.
Button has already picked up BAFTAs for production design, visual effects and make-up, and deservedly so. Benjamin’s transition from wizened and infirm to muscular Adonis is remarkable. But running to almost three hours, the film’s success will hang on the strength of its storytelling, not its visual gimmicks.
It comprises two distinct halves that don’t blend together perfectly. The first is a quirky, often comedic record of Benjamin’s early years as he begins to outgrow his frailty and embarks on his adventures at sea, while the second is slower and elegiac, focusing on his relationship with Daisy.
While always in his thoughts, Daisy is an inconstant presence in Benjamin’s life. Their love story isn’t a fairytale romance and the film’s pragmatic approach to their relationship is refreshing. Their lives are literally moving in opposite directions; it’s absolutely right that they don’t always fit together. Daisy has come under critical fire for the self-centredness and pretension she displays in her early twenties; well, what else is to be expected from her at that age? Why should she be the perfect, patient love interest anyway? When the two finally ‘meet in the middle’ in their forties, their relationship finally makes sense (although it rankles that Daisy has to be brought to heel by a tragic twist of fate before she matures enough to be with him).
It is the supporting cast, however, that truly brings the film to life; Taraji P. Henson, as Benjamin’s big-hearted foster mother Queenie, and Jared Harris as an artistically-inclined tugboat captain, both give fine, warm performances. The addition of Mr. Daws, who has been struck by lightning seven times, gives the film a wonderful recurring comic motif. Button deals not with the wider issues of a changing America, but with small-scale human interest stories; while there is little point to Tilda Swinton’s lonely diplomat’s wife, we are glad of her presence all the same.
Pitt is, of course, physically ideal to play the title role, but his considerable talent as an actor is underused. In making Benjamin an everyman and foil to the larger-than-life characters around him, he is denied a distinct personality of his own. For the first half of the film he is a blank canvas and an utterly passive protagonist. We don’t get to see inside his head – his thoughts, his goals, his fears – and it keeps us at a distance. It is much later, when he truly realises the implications of his condition, that he begins to make his own decisions and take responsibility for his life.
Button seems an odd project for director David Fincher to take on; while he excels in tense, dark, disturbing fare (Fight Club, Seven), he’s not exactly known for expressing emotional warmth in his work and it shows here. While the final act of the film is moving and handled with grace, it could have – and should have – been heartbreaking. Fincher shows us Benjamin’s story through a cold, detached lens and it is too tempting to wonder what another, more suitable, director could have done with the material.
However, screenwriter Eric Roth is responsible for the film’s biggest flaws. His adaptation of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story is extremely loose, which would be fine if he wasn’t abandoning it in favour of re-hashing the formula he used for Forrest Gump (and really, the last thing the world needs is another Forrest Gump). At times it seems as if he simply hasn’t thought things through; by having Benjamin’s body become younger while his mind develops normally, he veers dangerously close to turning the story into another run-of-the-mill life-affirming ‘overcoming adversity’ mawk-fest. He also insists on condescending to the audience, hammering home several thematic points that could have been woven much more subtly into the narrative if he didn’t underestimate us quite so much.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether, when presented with Benjamin’s remarkable condition, you accept it and allow the story to unfold around it, or ask what the point of it is. You won’t find one. The film won’t present you with answers, or reveal some divine purpose behind its premise. It’s a fairytale, a magical-realist yarn that will draw you in and engage your interest, but only if you go with the flow and let it.
Button is a film about responsibility and sacrifice; about fate versus free will; about grasping any opportunity to live life to the full while you can. Mostly, it’s about the transience of things; of youth, of beauty, of happiness, of life itself. It isn’t perfect, but it should not be derided and dismissed as pointless and poorly-told. If you’re willing to forgive the negatives, it will reward you with moments of great beauty and poignancy that will stay with you. It’s a simple tale told in a convoluted way, but its essence shines through.