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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 20.29%
Average: 13.04%
Pretty Bad: 14.49%
Total Crap: 13.04%

4 reviews, 45 user ratings

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Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The
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by Erik Childress

"The Curious Thing Is What A Failure It Is"
2 stars

David Fincher is a filmmaker who always gravitated towards the darkest sides of people, but ones still searching for some sign of redemption. The serial killer of Seven who punished whom he believed to be soulless vessels. The emptiness of Michael Douglas’ rich SOB in The Game. The new generation of spenders who could only feel alive by beating each other to a pulp in Fight Club. And even those whose obsession in finding the Zodiac killer would make them no use to those who cared. So tackling a subject matter as vastly inherent in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, requires a lot more of the redemptive side than the darkness; a side that in Fincher’s first four films meant an attempt at suicide to leave this world behind for good and let the rest of us suffer. The story of Benjamin Button is one of the ultimate darkness, the story of a child born nearly into death and then must watch the decay of all around him while his outer skin would make envious wrecks out of Ponce de Leon, Dorian Gray and Dr. 90210. But within this march towards death lies the eternal questions of life, aging, hope, fate, love, lust and discovery, to name just a few and it requires a director not just capable of molding all of those elements into a shared universal experience but one interested in such things. You need a Spielberg, a George Miller, a Peter Jackson or a Robert Zemeckis if he hadn’t already tackled such similar terrain. David Fincher was simply not the right man for the job and it shows at every turn in a film that is not just maybe the greatest disappointment of 2008 but also a complete and utter failure at everything it set out to tackle.

Pic opens in a modern-day hospital room where the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her impending deathbed with her middle-aged daughter (Julia Ormond) saying goodbye. Immediately setting up its themes of time and loss and the anticipatory heartbreak to follow, we’re given the sidestory of a blind clockmaker (Elias Koteas) hired to design the new timepiece for Union Station. Only, out of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of WWI (including his own son), he creates one that runs solely backwards and no one makes an effort to have it changed for decades. Then begins Ben’s story. Born to a button manufacturer (Jason Flemyng) who is horrified by his son’s elderly alien-like appearance, Ben is left on the steps of an old folk’s home where he is picked up and adopted by servant Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). With all the qualities of an 80 year-old including bad hearing, sight, bone decay and wrinkles, Ben nevertheless fits right at home amidst the elderly with his “disease”

As the years pass and his body slowly begins to regenerate itself, Ben (Brad Pitt) will meet the young Daisy whose ravishing red hair and blue eyes would garner anyone’s attention. They will become friends during visits with her grandmother, but when they are kept apart , he finds himself in the company of big boys like the freewheeling pygmy Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) and tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris) who introduce him to the joys of alcohol and brothels. Benjamin will work as a deckhand for Mike for years before an encounter with a Japanese sub sends him back home to New Orleans where he reacquaints with the blossoming Daisy, now a trained dancer whose seduction methods he might not be ready for. He will get some much needed practice in the form of Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a worldly married lady who was determined to swim the English channel only to fail and never muster up the gumption to try again. All of these side stories are interludes (and long ones, at that) designed to bring Ben and Daisy together for the better part of their lives. Albeit like last year’s failed adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera, by the time they do we’ve long since reached the point of caring.

Obviously, the comparisons to Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump are unavoidable. A unique young man on a series of worldly adventures with strange characters on the path towards the one overriding love of his life that, in no coincidence, is penned by Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for adapting Herman Bloom’s novel. The advantage Roth had with Gump was a template that could take its hero to any walk of life that had an impact on American history and the world as we saw it. With Fitzgerald’s story running a brief 20-some pages, there’s a lot of blank filling to do and it appears as if Roth did everything he could to not just avoid the trappings of Gump as much as possible but to throw out most of the original story and the themes that were so inherent in just a few paragraphs. Roth is no stranger to sprawling stories that are more than just the sum of its plotting. Along with Gump, Roth is responsible for work on The Insider, Munich and The Good Shepherd, all brilliant narratives that arrive to its conclusion clearly and pointedly with its protagonists changed, for the better or the worse, but all the same changed. Benjamin Button, for all his outer unsightliness turned into an Adonis-like figure, he is a character that is basically the same in the end as he was when he met him. And by that, I mean, completely monotonous and uninteresting.

The concept of having him live out his life amongst his own kind, so to speak, at the retirement home would be one of the film’s more brilliant strokes if he had more interaction with the patrons aside from the amusing repetition of the guy struck by lightning seven times. (We get to see just about all of them, too.) But by having Benjamin fit in in this manner, there is never a sense of abuse or disconnect between his appearance and those his own age. He never goes to school. He never interacts with any other children but the angelic Daisy. Even the younger adults he comes in contact with accept him as he is, just assuming he’s an old man that has never been laid. We’re not put on a sympathetic plain with the boy, and even if this is intended for an audience to look past his condition, there better be something within that endears him as anything more to us than just another person in the world. Despite maintaining Fitzgerald’s story title, Roth and Fincher present no discernable curiosity of Benjamin Button or the predicament that makes his encounters extraordinary. Even the most alive segment of the film, a montage of the intervening of fate, will have astute viewers harkening back to Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent "this...cannot be that" prologue to Magnolia and giving no credit to Fincher for expanding upon that idea in any meaningful way or teasing us that his flair for the theatrics will make another appearance.

As the film is intent on meeting Benjamin and Daisy in the middle of their lives, the potential for so many intimate questions arise. As suggested in the original story, Benjamin (who is a few years older than Daisy) is at his best physical shape while Daisy is approaching the epihenal sexual peak of her being. So we’re treated to a montage of various lovemaking locales, beginning with a “sleep with me” moment that is basically a direct counter joke to Forrest and Jenny’s long-awaited consummation. But once the few minutes of passion subside, all the script can offer is the all-too-age-old insecurity of a woman wondering if she will be loved when she’s 64. Not to dismiss that fear in the slightest (since the film is all-too-willing to do it for us) but the film cheats itself by ignoring the politics of aging and how men grow into age but women lose their desire and power within society with every little spot and wrinkle. And because the film has taken its sweet ol’ time to even arrive at this point all it can do is send Benjamin away on another series of youthful adventures, abandoning his family instead of the potentially heartbreaking and poignant opportunity to grow young with them and become a playmate to his own child where who knows what lessons he can teach her about the 75 years of life he’s experienced by age five.

That could be because Benjamin really fails to learn much of anything throughout his life. He learns about drinking. He learns about sex. His time on the tugboat produces nothing but a lot of drunken rambling by a near indecipherable Jared Harris, the section of the film where you can begin doubting its success rate. The potentially interesting segment involving Tilda Swinton as the middle-aged former adventure-seeker should be the centerpiece for the rest of Benjamin’s life; a loveless marriage sending its wife into the arms of a younger man for one final taste of her own youth. Except like most of its players, Swinton is a cold fish who barely displays the minimal amount of passion we can expect to see in a PG-13 film and offers nothing in the way of insight that would alter Benjamin’s outlook on life. Sure it re-sparks his interest in the aggressive Daisy (Blanchett’s attempted seduction through dance is easily the film’s most intimate highlight) but as she goes through the pattern of rebuffing him, the seeds of Gump continue to grow and we’re reminded that beyond the cleverness, humor, sorrow and tribute to the changing landscape of America, Forrest was a character we loved and cared about and just because you can remove the so-called mawkishness and stare lovingly into the eyes of Brad Pitt, doesn’t mean that those baby blues have anything to say.

You can remove the Benjamin Button away from the Gump but you can’t take the Gump out of the Button no matter how hard you try. Fincher may have cheekily dissed him in Fight Club as Tyler Durden yells “Run, Forrest, Run” to a fleeing store clerk, but he could have taken a cue from one of its many lexiconian catch phrases and sped things up a bit. At no point should a film so dependent on the thematics of time have a viewer wondering if they’ve ever checked their watch more in a theater. Fincher does his narrative absolutely no favors by reaching back to Daisy’s hospital scene almost every ten minutes while Ormond reads from Benjamin’s diary. Other than one of the opening moments (where the film showed much promise) where her daughter says how much she’s going to miss her, these scenes don’t work at all other than a cheap gimmick (complete with approaching hurricane) with no further insight into dying or lost love and the film can never build any momentum because of it. It’s Gloria Stuart times ten only with a different sinking ship.

Those who allowed the Forrest Gump hype (and Tarantino emergence of ’94) to cast aspertions on their memory of the film may find a way to justify Button’s lack of so-called mawkishness as having its collective ideas buried within imagery and silences. But there’s no covering up the elements of being human, even if it means keeping their emotions on the inside instead of our their sleeve. You can’t fake that no matter how much CGI you use to turn the clock on Pitt back to 1991. After giving what may have been the best performance of his career in the even more subdued and far more successful, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pitt is given so little to work with here that we actually regress on his career back to the days when he was just another pretty face and staremonger from Interview with the Vampire (another great film that didn’t need big sweeping moments to accentuate its points about mortality.) It all changed for Pitt (and me) when he starred in Fincher’s Seven and not long after in his Fight Club, where he displayed energy, fire and even a goofiness to filet his image. The saddest thing about Benjamin Button is not his condition or his unrequited love affair, but the hypocrisy that outer beauty will cure all ills and insecurities even if it makes you the most uninteresting person on the planet.

If you were making a film designed to be the perfect Oscar machine (especially after being ignored for years), you would probably make one just like Benjamin Button. Potential for acting nominations across the board (helped by playing lives both young and old), a period piece with room to get those art direction and costume nods and technical respects from visual effects to makeup and all the rest to garner honors at Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. But just because it looks like an Oscar film and feels like an Oscar film, doesn’t make it so. (Also see: Clint Eastwood’s Changeling or anything by Lasse Hallstrom.) Maybe some audience members will be able to connect with Benjamin’s story and respond to his final moments, sparking sense memories of their own maternal fears and hopes. But its not about tapping into our past and going backwards. Its about living now before its too late and dispelling the notion that the best years of our lives are behind us. Instead it’s barely a Seinfeld joke about how our 1st and 100th birthdays are virtually the same (diapers, disorientation, etc…) and a far cry from the brilliance of Forrest Gump despite how desperately it tries to hit its most important beats. Instead of a shrimp boat we have a tug boat. Instead of a Vietnam ambush, we get a Japanese sub. Instead of a feather, we have a hummingbird. If Benjamin’s story was one of horror and depravity, perhaps then Fincher would have had something to say. The result couldn’t be more of a misfire, especially with the likes of Danny Boyle (a filmmaker also known to tap into the worst parts of being human) showing how well such a story could be told with Slumdog Millionaire right now, or for more challenged viewers, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. If we just wanted to see an average life lacking in curiosity and adventure, we’ve always got Willy Loman and Mike Leigh films to wade through.

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originally posted: 12/25/08 16:00:00
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User Comments

4/17/11 brian I wanted to like it better. Its length not a problem for me, but story falls apart late. 4 stars
4/26/10 mr.mike Worth seeing but the viewer feels detached from what is happening on screen. 4 stars
12/13/09 Micah Loved the visual texture but much too long and every plot twist felt dead to me. 3 stars
12/13/09 mwilde Have I ever told you I've been struck by lightining seven times? 4 stars
11/10/09 millersxing Dumb. But I liked the characters and wish they were in a better movie. 3 stars
10/19/09 auzzie chickie great. It felt wierd watching ben as an old man under the table with the young girl though. 4 stars
10/18/09 daveyt slow but enjoyable, why didn't he become a grown-up baby in the end though? illogical 4 stars
7/27/09 Abhishek Chakraborty it's ok...really slow though. kinda movie you could have a nice sleep for half an hour in. 3 stars
7/07/09 michael mann very slow, boring and average 1 stars
6/30/09 the dork knight Melancholy storybook tale with no real point. But....Tilda Swinton FTW. 4 stars
6/13/09 Simon Fascinating premise, memorably tender at points, but no excuse for such a hollow Button.. 4 stars
6/13/09 Wiseman Pretentious garbage 1 stars
5/30/09 Corky After all is said and done, doesn't really hava all that much to say... 3 stars
5/19/09 Dr.Lao Wish fulfillment for aging baby boomers. Pretentious crap 1 stars
5/11/09 Ron Patterson A man builds a clock that runs backwards therefore a child was born that aged backwards. 1 stars
5/08/09 Samantha Pruitt great story the visuals are awesome! 4 stars
5/04/09 Steve D Very good performance by Brad Pitt 4 stars
4/20/09 Kerset I'm getting to old for this shit, pass me the fast-forward button 2 stars
3/05/09 B3tt3R 7h4N U Just horrible, nothing but horrible. 1 stars
2/22/09 Piz Interesting story but incredibly dull for looong stretches. A snoozer with heart. 3 stars
2/12/09 Sander Crap 1 stars
2/12/09 MP Bartley Tingles with melancholy and technically ravishing - but Button as a man is a blank. 4 stars
2/11/09 aliceinwonderland I've seen a lot better. Nothing special. 3 stars
1/26/09 Rob Wilkins Herman Bloom?Try again.It's Winston Groom.Japanese sub?Uh-uh it's German U-boat 3 stars
1/20/09 carly urban the best film of 2008 hands down 5 stars
1/13/09 Man Out 6 Bucks Leaden fat overblown pompous moralizing messagey inert bathetic crap targeted 4 awards 1 stars
1/11/09 I too long, too slow...too bad! 2 stars
1/09/09 Lenore Francois A unique & intriguing story, however a little too long. 4 stars
1/06/09 Beth Slye Beautifully filmed, a mesmerizing story with wonderful characters. Will stay with you. 5 stars
1/05/09 renee Much too long. Not a love story. Flat main character who didn't want to engage in life. Zzz 2 stars
1/04/09 Waltizzle!!! Beautiful film!!! All there is to say!!! 5 stars
1/03/09 Don L Excellent movie I will long remember. 5 stars
1/03/09 jcjs33 decent acting, too too long, something lacking, dragged, mediocre story 3 stars
1/02/09 R.W. Welch Episodic but ingenious. Pacing lags in spots. 4 stars
1/01/09 Gil Carlson Pacing is a problem, but the film is ultimately transcendant, moving and ground breaking. 5 stars
12/31/08 Amy O Great review but movie put me to sleep a few times...too long, too slow. 4 stars
12/30/08 richard monahan one of the most tedious films ever 1 stars
12/30/08 Mark R Outstanding movie. Totally engrossing. 5 stars
12/30/08 Quigley One of the most interesting film experiences I've had in a long time. Hail David Fincher. 5 stars
12/29/08 RW Extremely boring movie. Spot on review. 2 stars
12/29/08 Sean Childress Erik Childress....illiterate fratboy or just plain douche bag? You decide. 5 stars
12/26/08 Harold Martinez Thanks for putting my thoughts in writting... 3 stars
12/26/08 anne onimiss LOVED IT!!!! 5 stars
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  25-Dec-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 05-May-2009


  DVD: 05-May-2009

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