Movie Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

You probably know the concept from the previews: a man ages backwards. Very loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Button was probably the second most-hyped film of the year after The Dark Knight, and it’s already rumored to steal a few Oscars. But does it live up to expectations? Yes and no.

What Works
Fincher’s direction (Se7en, Zodiac) is masterful. He’s a visual exhibitionist with a real knack for composition, and Button delivers some of the most hauntingly beautiful images to ever grace the silver screen. The slowly shifting palette of earthtones drenches the settings and the actors in romantic wistfulness. The period details are seamless throughout the twentieth century, the aging effects are convincing, and there are moments of pure, old-fashioned Hollywood magic.

Alexandre Desplat’s score soars. He manages to capture the fantastical nature of the story in an understated way, never going too over-the-top. It isn’t as good as his criminally-underappreciated Birth, but it’s perfect for Button, especially in the quieter moments of awe and expectation.

Cate Blanchett positively glows, whether she’s made up to be in her 20’s or her 50’s. I’ve been a fan since Bandits, and her performance in Notes on a Scandal is tough to top, but this might be her best work yet. I hope she’s at least nominated for this come Oscar season.

Some of the other character actors steal the scenes they’re in, most notably a free-spirited tugboat captain played by Jared Harris (Fringe, son of the late Richard Harris), and a lovelorn British aristocrat in the form of Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading).

What Doesn’t
Eric Roth’s screenplay needed another draft: it’s a wonderful story embedded within unnecessary subplots. Every fifteen minutes, the film sporadically jumps to 2004 to establish a frame narrative through flashbacks, but these sequences should have been cut completely. They jolt you right out of the magical realism of the main storyline, and ask way too much of the audience by throwing in a third–and ultimately useless–focal character (sorry, Julia Ormond). It’s almost as if these scenes were added at the last minute to help the film’s Oscar cred. But in a movie that clocks in at three hours, knocking off these thirty minutes would’ve really helped the pace. There’s also a throw-away subplot featuring an African bushman that has no business making the final cut.

Roth also wrote Forrest Gump, and it shows. Both movies feature a hapless, passive protagonist stumbling through historical moments in the twentieth century. Both share themes of chance versus fate, and ordinary versus peculiar. Both unite their lovers only to tear them apart. Gump‘s recurring feather is replaced by a flitting hummingbird. You could draw more analogies (Captain Mike and Lieutenant Dan, etc.), but in end, Gump‘s a superior film. I thought I’d like Button more, given its fantastical concept, but Roth’s script tones the magic down for the most part, as each act becomes more and more grounded in reality.

Brad Pitt’s performance is another hindrance, suprisingly, since I usually love the guy. He delivers every line of the film identically, with a slow quizzical drawl. His facial expression never changes from a wide-eyed, open-mouthed gape. This works well when he’s supposed to be an old man, but I was hoping he would mature emotionally and intellectually as the decades passed. Unfortunately, Pitt’s performance lacks any hints of psychological depth, which is a stark contrast to Blanchett’s brilliance. Button is more about her than him. She makes the decisions that drive the plot forward, that end and begin scenes.

Finally, the first act is far too long. Benjamin spends an entire hour as an old man, and the other actors don’t help much, turning in some awkward performances. His adoptive parents were especially cringe-worthy; at times, it was like watching a bad play.

Conclusion
Despite its faults, I do recommend Button. It will likely compel you to slow down and look at your life more closely–at its inherent opportunities and potentialities–as well as your own attitude toward mortality. The best movie of the year is hidden in there somewhere, just begging for the scissors of an adept editor to bring it out.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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