Film review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

“We're meant to lose the people we love,” explains a character early on in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“How else would we know how important they are to us?” Changing the focus of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story upon which it is based – from the conundrum of a solitary human anachronism to the mostly relational and romantic difficulties of a man living backward – Benjamin Button invests nearly three hours toward an exploration of this question.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher.
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond.

The narrative unfurls by way of a hackneyed plot device, a series of flashbacks framed as diary entries written by the eponymous Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) and read aloud by Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her dying mother, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Daisy is too weak to tell her daughter everything she would like to, and so the diary vignettes must suffice on their own to illuminate certain truths about Caroline’s parentage, Daisy’s history, and life itself.

The son of a wealthy industrialist who abandons him on sight, Benjamin is born as a frail old man on Nov. 11, 1918, perhaps as the result of a local clockmaker’s efforts to somehow bring home “the boys we lost in the war” by building a memorial clock for New York’s Grand Central Station whose hands turn backward instead of forward.

However, despite the initial prognosis that he is not long for this world, Benjamin survives, and ages – or rather rejuvenates – into a healthy young man. He grows up in a nursing home run by his adopted mother, quickly becoming acquainted with infirmity and death. He meets Daisy, a resident’s granddaughter and the two hit it off (though this is inadequately expressed by two child actors and a heavily CGIed Pitt), eventually hatching an earnest romance when, appearance-wise, they find themselves “meeting in the middle.”

Unfolding in the manner of a fable, Benjamin’s life comes across as a Big Fish story: a fairytale memoir like Titanic (complete with annoyingly frequent returns to the present and its elderly protagonist) told with the sensibilities of Pan’s Labyrinth. Completing this anti-realistic tone is the fact that, with the exception of David’s adopted mother Queenie (played with wonderful depth and humanity by Taraji P. Henson), the supporting characters are unapologetic, broad-stroke clichés, right down to the sailor named Grim who intones sternly pessimistic pronouncements like a morbid C-3PO.

Pitt and Blanchett, however, are at their peak. Pitt’s Benjamin grows from endearing man-child (take note, Will Ferrell!) to lovingly selfless child-man, while Blanchett turns in a poignant, nuanced performance opposite him. A perfectly cast Tilda Swinton plays Benjamin’s first lover, a stoney faced diplomat’s wife.

Presented with the opportunity to span a century of (mostly American) history, from the First World War to Hurricane Katrina – and boasting everything from Beatlemania to a Cape Canaveral shuttle launch in between – director Fincher must have decided to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.

The special effects used to recreate decades-old settings and film stocks, not to mention Pitt’s prematurely aged appearance, are nothing short of spectacular. However, a minor car accident (important only for its lasting injuries) is given an incredibly long, aggravatingly cutesy lead-up narrated in the style of a caper film; and an old man’s recollections of the seven times he was struck by lightning are depicted one by one, shot as A Trip To The Moon director George Méliès might have created them in 1902.

More successfully, Benjamin Button runs the full gamut of emotions, exploring love, friendship, grief, and humour (notably in the form of Family Guy-style flashbacks depicting the aforementioned human lightning rod).

Though its pacing is off, largely weighed down by a ponderous first act, Benjamin Button matures over the course of its running time, much like the titular character, and while it gets a little self-indulgent in its closing moments – choosing to go out on a lofty note like American Beauty or A River Runs Through It – its second half has all the makings of a memorable romance.

Photographed beautifully by cinematographer Claudio Miranda in his first major film (he must have watched a Sam Mendes marathon for inspiration) and imbued with a sense of wonder and magic by Alexandre Desplat’s score (reminiscent of Danny Elfman composing for Tim Burton), Benjamin Button is a thoughtful Christmas confection and a definite contender for the Academy Awards on the horizon.