WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: With Hurricane Katrina approaching, gravely-ill former dancer Daisy has her daughter read out the diary of her friend and one-time lover Benjamin Button, born as a tiny old man and destined to live his life backwards. His eventful life and the frequent crossing of their paths sooths Daisy as her time runs out, also giving the daughter a number of surprises as she reads.
If there’s a single word that you would use to describe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it’s ‘quality.’ There’s not a frame of the film that passes without David Fincher making sure it looks and sounds beautiful, whether it is concentrating on present-day New Orleans, the opening tale of the clock-maker who designed his clock to run backwards in memory of his war-fallen son, or the life story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), the infant afflicted with a unique condition and abandoned to the care of old people’s home worker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).
Queenie brings Benjamin up with love and attention, and the old boy is soon accepted at the old people’s home, making acquaintances not only of the colourful characters who pass through – most of whom eventually simply pass, of course – but also of a young relative of a resident, a lively girl called Daisy. Benjamin eventually grows up/down enough to find himself work, which leads him onto a tugboat under the sozzled stewardship of Captain Mike (Jared Harris) and from there into war, where he is based in Russia and experiences romantic love for the first time with bored diplomat’s wife Tilda Swinton.
After the war, Benjamin and Daisy – now a professional dancer – return to Louisiana but initially she is too young and impulsive for him, and a few years later when he finds her in New York, he is ready for a relationship but she is involved with another dancer. A tragic road accident in Paris, which ends her career, only brings them together briefly; but at the point in their lives where they are roughly the same age they finally become lovers and spend an idyllic period together, funded by the button industry left by Benjamin’s father who, full of regrets, made himself known before he died. Of course, the relationship cannot last, but – as Daisy’s daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) finds out to her massive surprise – there is a lasting legacy to the relationship in the form of Caroline herself.
It’s no surprise that Benjamin Button received a host of Oscar nominations, not only because of the quality alluded to, or the significant technical achievement of bringing the story to the screen (Brad Pitt always looks the right age, even though Fincher finally resorts to using child actors in Benjamin’s final years); the plot has all the ingredients likely to tempt the Academy, with a love story that traverses the decades, taking in World War II and the start of the space age with an epic feel and a lyrical flow. However, F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story has been stretched into a film with a two-and-a-half hour-plus running time, and intriguing as Benjamin’s reverse ageing may be, there is simply not enough drama to fill that amount of time. Moreover, it is unclear exactly what Benjamin’s condition adds to the story by way of allegory, or anything that lifts it from being simply a neat device.
Furthermore, although I have no problem in accepting the initial premise of the film, and wouldn’t be so petty as to ask why Benjamin isn’t immediately carried away for medical experiments, E.T.-style, I have a few issues with the film. Firstly (and this may also be a bit picky), Benjamin is born as a baby-sized old man, and also dies baby-sized, when to be consistent he should surely end his life the size of a slightly shrunken adult. Secondly, and much more importantly, there is an interesting, almost Amelie-like sequence in Paris with a series of coincidences that culminates in the catastrophic collision of Daisy and a taxi; the question is, how is Benjamin aware of the movements of the taxi driver and the people he picks up? I presume the sequence, if it appears in the book, is easily explained by an omniscient narrator, but for Benjamin to know all the details and put them in his diary is rather suspect.
Thirdly, whilst I have no problem with the framing of the film in a New Orleans hospital – though I’m not sure what the relevance of Hurricane Katrina is meant to be – the film’s big revelation of Benjamin as Caroline’s father doesn’t entirely ring true, only because Benjamin is in Daisy’s life to such an extent (Benjamin and Caroline meet, just before he and Daisy have their final fling) that it seems inconceivable that she wouldn’t be curious; after all, Daisy visits and cuddles Benjamin every day towards the end of his life: where is the daughter all this time? And finally, whilst Button’s childishly naive old man is quite entertaining (the film is quite light on humour but features a nice recurring gag about a man constantly struck by lightning), as he rolls back into his twenties and teenage years Benjamin does not act world-weary but goes off travelling, just like a normal young man might.
All in all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is only partially successful. In terms of how it looks and how it tells its story, it is a beautiful piece of cinema; however, the story it tells is neither substantial enough nor consistent enough to be truly satisfying. And in the absence of a long-lasting message behind the story, the over-riding memory of the film for a lot of people might simply be how long it lasts.