Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

For the next few weeks I will be briefly examining the works of David Fincher, as preparation for The Social Network. Today, I am examining an interesting addition to his body of work, a somewhat misunderstood piece. It is a piece of work that is tempting to dismiss as over-ambitious and underwhelming, but one with sturdy artistic grounds. I think we can all agree that the film is a feast for the eyes, but I want to argue that it is an emotionally profound film, that is quietly appreciative and very personal in analyzing life-long struggles. The film is of course, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and with this piece, I want you to keep one word in mind: perspective.

While many critics stood to applaud the glory of Fincher’s most recent cinematic achievement, many held strong reservations towards the films narrative, and with good reason. For this reason, rather than put forth a traditional review, I will attempt to assess why many felt the way they did and why I feel differently.

 I felt, going into the film, that there were two common misconceptions. The first misconception is the expectation that it was to be a tragically romantic epic, a sort of modern day Gone with the Wind or Casablanca. The trailers enigmatically, but not entirely misleadingly constructed this perspective. The film lives up to its’ advertisements but in an indirect way. The film is not an epic; it is a quiet story of one man’s life. That said, it is tragic and romantic. The film is, with a few scenes serving as exceptions (the opening World War I scene, the hurricane, World War II), not told on a grand scale. It is a character study, but one less focused on the personality and behavioral attributes of Benjamin Button than of his lifelong predicaments. And by that I mean much more than his reverse aging. The important point being, a story that defies expectations should be praised and not condemned, and it is not a flaw to focus on the small-scale individual rather than grandiose drama.

The second misconception was the thought that this would be in some way a reimagining of Forrest Gump. In some respects, it actually is. Initially, screen writer Eric Roth pursued adapting the sequel novel, Gump & Co. He presented the script to Robert Zemeckis shortly after September 11, 2001. Looking at the script and its’ happy-go-lucky, “floating like a feather” theme, the two agreed the film was no longer relevant in a post 9/11 world. Not long afterward, Roth wrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This is the Forrest Gump sequel that is relevant in this day and age. Darker, and less lyrically preachy, I would argue that this version offers deeper insight. It could be called a companion piece to Forrest Gump, but the connections are limited due to the overall tonal differences. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not an uplifting, life-affirming story; it is a more honest assessment of an individual’s capabilities and downfalls. Rather than light-hearted entertainment, Benjamin Button is dark and haunting. But optimism has no correlation to a films’ quality.

At this point, I have explained what not to expect going into the film and not what I saw walking out of it. Walking in with no expectations largely affected my perspective the film. When I saw it in theaters, I quickly leapt to the same conclusions that many others did. Perhaps I was persuaded in advance by their reviews. But seeing it again with a fresh slate has changed my perspective and removed my misconceptions of the films’ narrative. This is not to say that it is a perfect film, it is far from perfection. Eric Roth has written a beautifully structured screenplay, but one whose dialogue occasionally falters (i.e. the scene in which Benjamin and Daisy awkwardly decide to have consummate their physical relationship for the first time). Despite the occasionally awkward dialogue however, I think the film offers legitimate insight to growth, development and outward perceptions of life. I do not believe, as many do, that the film lacks substance or focus. Many argue that the film runs in many directions, but never winds up anywhere, never makes any claim or point. They also argue that nothing can be learned from aging backwards, since we, ourselves, do not. However, I think the lack of clear moral in the movie is its’ greatest strength. I think when we get to the end of our lives, we all start to wonder why it all happened. But just because we don’t have a good answer, doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t worth it. At the end of this film, I felt moved and satisfied with the journey; I can’t expect much more from a cinematic experience.

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  • Mike

    Cate Blanchett was so amazing and gave one of her best performances in this.

  • Agreed, Mike. I thought this movie was extremely underrated, and way, way better than “Forrest Gump”.

  • Andrew R.

    I thought Benjamin Button was good, but not great.

  • Quinn

    This film not nearly as good as “Forrest Gump”, but it was very underrated. It was a beautiful film and Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, and the actress who played Benjamin’s mother )I can’t remember how to spell her name) gave mesmereizing performances.

  • Davin

    Taraji P. Henson is her name, Quinn, and I completely agree, that is my favorite performance of the film. Also, I am not trying to imply that Benjamin Button is better than Forrest Gump, just that it is philosophically deeper, which is the point where most people judged the film too harshly.

  • Jose

    It really is deeper than “Forrest Gump”, but to this day I still wonder what all the buzz is about. I think that my problem with the movie, unlike you Davin, was that at the end of this “journey” I did not feel satisfied at all.

  • Isaac Richter

    While I was mesmerized by the last hour of the film, my problem was that the first two hours I felt like they were going on Forrest Gump auto-pilot (war, meeting the girl, house with a lot of people in it) and it just bugged me in that part. I also hated that line “you never know what’s coming to you”, because it was just another version of the much more clever “life is like a box of chocolates…” line. Also, I feel Forrest Gump is more of a satire. It pokes fun at America’s obsession with applying importance at just about everything (like the fact that Forrest was running) and I felt the characters were more entertaining (and the narration was also more entertaining, since it came from a more unique character) while Benjamin Button just didn’t have much bite to it. I get what you’re saying Alex about it being darker and tragic, but it never feels quite that way to me. The scenes that spark the most life to me are those with Tilda Swinton, since I feel she adds so much to that character and she is delightful, but I find most of the film to be kind of dull and I just can’t connect with it (until that final hour, where it becomes something that the rest of the movie couldn’t manage to be).

  • @Isaac – Thanks for the response, but this article was all Davin :)

    I agree with a lot of what you say though, Isaac, because I thought that ‘Forrest Gump’ was more intentionally ironic while ‘Benjamin Button’ was pure drama.

  • Davin

    I agree with much of what you said as well, Isaac, specific lines of dialouge from Roth’s writing are never great. To be hones, I always hated the ‘run forrest run’ thing and the box of chocolates line as well. That said I think you are getting at a bit of an interesting point. You said that Forrest Gump is satirizing how we apply importance to everything (with the running…). This is an interesting juxtaposition to Benjamin Button which applies little importance to anything. Which is why it leaves the audience asking what was to be gained from it all, which is sort of how I feel about life, which I personally enjoy the film.

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