The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I’ve always said a good film should be like a good book. It should engage you, take you on a journey, be filled with characters you get to know, learn to root for or against, put you places and tell you stories that in some way move, thrill, provoke or stimulate you. But mostly, a good film, like a good book, only works if it has a theme, a philosophical and moral center—a message, if you will—that connects it with its audience. This is the soul of the film, and, without it, it’s just a shell.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that seems to promise all of this and more. It would seem to have it all—characters you live with, a journey, tales, adventures and deep philosophical themes about mortality and the meaning of life. And yet it still doesn’t quite work. Maybe it outdoes itself. Whatever it is, this film just doesn’t connect.

Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin Button, a freak of nature who is born old and gets younger as time goes on. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the premise is a fascinating one, but is alone not enough to sustain a full-length movie, much less one as long as this. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been done. Some of the finest films have been based on short stories, The Shawshank Redemption and Brokeback Mountain two recent examples. It takes fleshing out and a really great screenwriter to take the essential story and make it live and breathe a full and rich life on the page and the screen. In this film, however, the screenplay fails to provide the audience anything engaging beyond a few random characters and the only thing that I found myself curious about was how they were going to make Brad Pitt continually younger as the movie wore on.

As for themes, there is a treasure trove left untouched and so many potential philosophical roads not taken that the only deep sentiments here feel as if they’re being read from a fortune cookie. In fact, the one-liners and simplistic ways of looking at life remind the audience from the first scenes of another recent blockbuster film, one that seeps more and more into your consciousness as this film plays on. From the down-home wisdom to the pure-at-heart (and almost slow-wittedly simple) protagonist, to the don’t-linger-too-long pacing, to the overall structure, to the corny motifs, to the colorful characters that our hero meets along the way, there is no way to avoid the comparisons to Forrest Gump, and that, unfortunately, is what connects most with the audience. What had the potential to really delve into themes of mortality and the truly unique concepts of what it would mean for someone to age in reverse (would the spirit age as well? what does it mean to be old being young?) ends up simply being a simple tale of a simple fellow who doesn’t fit in who finds his way in the world and never lets life break him. The similarities between the two films are nearly staggering while you’re watching the film until you notice that they are both written by the same person. Then you almost feel betrayed.

But still there was that potential. All could still have been forgiven and even forgotten if the lead character had been better drawn. What made Forrest Gump such a successful film wasn’t the story or the plot or even the simplistic themes (although there was some charm in them which is lost here now since we’ve seen it already). What worked about Forrest Gump was Forrest. It was all about his charm, personality and character and how he was played by Tom Hanks. You liked him, you rooted for him, you felt for him and you cared about him. We connected with him. Benjamin Button, on the other hand, as played by Brad Pitt, has no spark, no charisma, no real personality to even speak of. To be honest, the most interesting thing about him is that he’s played by Brad Pitt. I actually didn’t care about him or what happened to him. He was always just Brad Pitt in makeup and I never once believed he was this character. I don’t fault Brad Pitt for this, I know he’s a better actor than he gives us here, but in this film he’s just nothing more than a show pony. He’s given virtually no dialogue even remotely interesting to say and he’s nothing more than a walking special effect the entire film.

That’s not to say this is a terrible film. It’s not. It’s just a deeply disappointing film. Cate Blanchett is always wonderful in anything she does and she is again wonderful here as the love of Benjamin’s life. Tilda Swinton—well, what can you say about Tilda Swinton. When you have Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton in the same movie, it’s like cat nip for lovers of great acting. Swinton steals the brief time she’s on screen, as she usually does, and is magnificent. Newcomer Taraji P. Henson is great as Benjamin’s adopted mother and director David Fincher, who is breaking from his grim and gory past (Zodiac, Se7en, Fight Club) with this gentle and bittersweet tale, does a good job making this long film feel brisk and the cinematography is at times truly beautiful. There are some honest attempts at philosophizing, but it’s all along the lines of “life is like a box of chocolates…,” so it’s hard to take any of it really seriously.

Overall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is curiously….dull. Don’t say you didn’t know what you were going to get.