The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Review

David Fincher puts Brad Pitt into reverse gear for this special effects-laden extravaganza – a strong candidate for most talked-about movie of 2009. Roger Keen reviews.

The notion of travelling back in time, or reversing time, has long fascinated writers, and the discoveries of early Twentieth Century physicists, such as Einstein, Heisenberg and Planck provided a spur, giving fanciful imaginings some factual underpinning. But it was probably not the tricksiness of relativity’s elastication of time or what happens in the arcane microverse of quantum mechanics that inspired so much as another emerging phenomenon of that era – the medium of film – which, unlike reality, is capable of being run backwards to create the magical illusion of reverse causality, as evinced by that insurance commercial where a broken vase lifts itself off the floor, reassembles in space and comes to rest in flawless condition back on its stand. This idea often features in works of science fiction, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where in a peerless four hundred word passage, he reverses a wartime bombing raid and its consequences and solves the problem of Hitler by having him turn into a baby. Martin Amis lifted that concept wholesale in Time’s Arrow, having a Nazi doctor live backwards from death to birth and repair the Holocaust along the way. More than anything, Vonnegut and Amis together illustrate that the reverse time idea works better in the shorter form rather than the extended, where it is in danger of becoming tedious, predictable and eventually banal.

And so we have a very similar situation with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which takes an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, providing another variation on this same theme, and expands it into a near three hour film, with maximum effort being put into the creation of a sweeping, epic, magic realist fable of Twentieth Century life – a grandiloquent, worthy, self-consciously ‘great film’. For director David Fincher it’s a notable departure from the dark genre-related themes that have informed his previous work, instead establishing a foothold on the ladder of art – and undoubtedly eyeing the Oscars.

Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth penned the screen story and screenplay, and there’s more than a hint of Gump’s DNA in Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) as he fumbles his way, aloof and starry-eyed, through swathes of American history. Ben is born as a baby-sized old man in 1918, at the very end of World War I, and as he grows through his ‘childhood’, he progressively de-ages. Rejected by his father (Jason Flemyng), he is delivered into the hands of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), who suitably work at an old peoples’ care home. The narrative capitalises on the idea of old age as inverted childhood, so out of a state of helplessness and dependency, wheelchair bound, Ben becomes more vigorous and assertive and gains the use of his legs. On reaching ‘adolescence’, he is able to take on work, have his first taste of alcohol and, as the debilitations of old age recede further still, his first woman.

While still an old man, he meets and befriends a young girl, Daisy (Elle Fanning) and later, after World War II, when she is grown up and pursuing a career as a dancer (now played by Cate Blanchett), he tries to renew the friendship; but the age gap between the young woman and the now late middle-aged Ben is too great for any chemistry to take place. By the 1960s, however, their ages have converged and the romance that was always there in potential comes into blossom. But of course their timelines are travelling in opposite directions, so how can love survive?

The story of Ben’s life is imparted by an aged and dying Daisy to her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), using Ben’s diary as a source and so giving opportunity for ample Gumpish narration. The film proceeds at a leisurely pace, taking its time to get to Ben and Daisy’s tryst, and along the way we are treated to Ben’s other adventures, such as his time on a tugboat, grappling with U-boats in World War II, under the mentorship of the colourful Captain Mike (Jared Harris); and his brief clandestine affair with diplomat’s wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), conducted whilst in Russia. Then there’s the issue of Ben’s relationship with the father who gave him away and the inevitably heart-tugging scenes that must ensue to complete the big picture of his life.

The fabulist style is established right at the start with the tale of clockmaker Gateau (Elias Koteas), who expresses his wish to turn back time by constructing a clock that runs in reverse, initiating some Vonnegutian backwards war footage. Here the quality of old film is magnificently reproduced – flickery, scratchy, grainy, the emulsion partially decaying, giving rise to sometimes faded and sometimes unnaturally enhanced colours. This palette is echoed elsewhere, in the digitally shot cityscapes and seascapes, lending skies and distant vistas a fairytale-like iconographic quaintness, reminiscent of the painted-on-glass Himalayas in Black Narcissus.

Of course The Curious Case of Benjamin Button represents a new high in digital filmmaking, utterly state-of-the-art in the seamlessness and verisimilitude of its CGI techniques. The bulk of this effort went into the creation of the old Ben, using motion capture from Brad Pitt’s face and digital head replacement onto the bodies of older and smaller actors, a feat requiring hugely sophisticated tracking systems and a massive amount of compositing work. Then, at the other end of the film, a similar wizardry gives us a vision of Brad Pitt in a resplendent state of pre-Thelma and Louise boyish handsomeness. For cinematography and visual effects, most any reviewer would give this film a perfect ten and it’s worth seeing for those aspects alone.

As for the piece as a whole, it has its drawbacks and individual enjoyment is likely to rest on how prepared one is to overlook them. Some will adore it and see the time device as a beautiful metaphor for the ephemeral nature of love and romance and being together on earth and, by extension, everything in life. Others might well think it a brilliantly achieved technical exercise but overly weighed-down by ponderousness and meretriciousness, with ultimately not very much to say. With this kind of humanistic science fiction, it’s the buffers of the rationale – in this case the beginning and end – where suspension of disbelief comes under the greatest strain and the middle, the rump, where it all works best. That’s especially true of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and between a dubious, slow burn start and a bit of a fizzle at the finale, it does achieve some moments of moving poignancy, helped no end by Brad Pitt’s quiet but commanding performance and his familiar movie history.

Stills © Warner Bros.

Roger Keen

Updated: Feb 04, 2009

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Review | The Digital Fix