Writers: Eric Roth (screenplay, screen story) and Robin Swicord (screen story)
Stars: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Felmyng, Elias Koteas, Tilda Swinton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a man who is born old and ages backwards, certainly has an original premise. However, while watching the Academy Award-winning film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this story before.
It’s the story of a special man who grows up feeling like an outsider, but has a kindhearted mother who helps him feel loved and accepted, who sets off on a series of adventures – including fighting in a war; working on a boat with an eccentric, drunken sailor and living through various historically-significant moments spanning several decades; all the while pining over a girl he met as a child who keeps getting pulled away from him. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of Forrest Gump, which I guess shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since both screenplays were written by the same man, Eric Roth.
While Benjamin Button seems to borrow heavily from Forest Gump’s format, the tone of the movie is quite different. While Forest Gump managed to stay cheerful even when dealing with some very dark subject matter, Benjamin Button is a much darker and depressing film. It’s a story about unconditional love, but it’s also very much about death and loss and the inevitability of growing old and withering away.
To add to the depressing feel of the movie, the present day scenes in the film take place in New Orleans while Hurricane Katrina is raging down on the city. The movie opens with Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett), slowly dying in a hospital. Her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) is by her side during her final moments. Caroline discovers a journal in her mom’s room and begins reading it. The journal was kept by a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who was “born under unusual circumstances.” As mentioned above, he was getting younger while everyone around him was getting older.
Benjamin’s father abandoned him when he was born, so he was raised in a retirement home by a sweet woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). At the retirement home, he was able to blend in, even though he was a young man in a tiny old man’s body. As Benjamin grows up, he meets Daisy, who at the time is a young child coming to visit her grandmother. The two instantly bond and throughout the rest of Benjamin’s life, even as he sets out to see the world, somehow he keeps finding Daisy. Eventually, as he continues to get younger and she continues to get older, they meet once again when they are both about the same age, which allows them to finally give their romance a shot.
It’s a sweet story with a lot to love about it, but a combination of the Forest Gump déjà vu and the film’s 166-minute run time kept me from truly liking this movie. The similarities to Forest Gump were perhaps unavoidable (and quite honestly may have been intentional, since Gump was so successful), but the film’s long run time definitely could have been trimmed down, which would have made the film much more enjoyable. As it stands, the movie just feels too long and drawn out.
I also didn’t like the Hurricane Katrina references in the film. While I think it’s great that David Fincher and company decided to set and shoot the film in New Orleans, referencing Katrina in the actual plot just seemed exploitative and didn’t really add anything to the film. While they might included Katrina with good intentions, ultimately it just seemed like one more depressing thing they could touch on to draw sympathy from the audience.
While the elements of the film mentioned above left a bad taste in my mouth, there is still a lot I enjoyed about this film. Visually, it is amazing, especially on Blu-ray, which allows you to appreciate all of the rich colors and subtle nuances in every shot. Not only is the film shot and colored beautifully, but it has some of the best special effects I have ever seen in a movie. Benjamin Button won Academy Awards for art direction, makeup and visual effects and when watching the film, it’s easy to understand why.
For the movie to work (without having to cast different actors to play Benjamin throughout the various stages of his life), the special effects and makeup had to be flawless. Luckily, the effects and makeup people knock it out of the park. When Benjamin is a young child with an old man’s face, they use CGI to superimpose a heavily-aged version of Brad Pitt’s face on a small body. As Benjamin grows up, they used makeup and prosthetics to make Pitt himself look older. Then, as Benjamin eventually gets to a point where he is younger than Pitt is in real life, they used CGI to make the actor look 20 years younger. They do the same thing with Blanchett’s character Daisy. When Daisy is a little girl, she is played by a young actress (Elle Fanning), but they replace Fanning’s voice with Blanchett’s. All of the makeup and effect are done quite convincingly, which really helps to sell the film.
The performances are all great as well. Pitt and Blanchett are both phenomenal individually and they have fantastic chemistry together. Taraji P. Henson brings a lot of sweetness and personality to Queenie. Jared Harris is great as the aforementioned eccentric, drunk sailor, Captain Mike. And Tilda Swinton has a nice cameo as Elizabeth Abbott.
Being a part of the “Criterion Collection,” the Blu-ray includes an in-depth making-of documentary called “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button.” Like the film itself, the documentary is quite long, clocking in at just under three hours. However, the documentary has also been broken up into individual segments so that you can easily watch any one part of it as a stand-alone featurette.
The documentary is broken up into four main parts. The first three parts are referred to as trimesters and the last part, the movie’s premiere, is simply called “Birth.” The “First Trimester” talks about the many years Benjamin Button spent in development limbo and reveals the different directors who were attached to the project at various times, which includes Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Spike Jonze. The “Second Trimester” deals with the production, so it talks about the 126 days spent on location and the 27 days spent on sound stages shooting the film. The “Third Trimester” focuses on post-production and it reveals what went into producing the visual effects, the sound editing and the soundtrack for the film.
There are a lot of interesting tidbits and insight contained within the documentary, but its long running time will probably discourage most casual fans from watching the whole thing (especially after sitting through a three-hour movie). Your best bet is to probably select the parts of the documentary that interest you the most and to skip directly to those parts. I recommend starting with the visual effects and performance capture footage, which was the most captivating to me (and it features a hilarious discussion about a particular facial expression that Brad Pitt makes quite a bit in his films, which was dubbed “The Brad”).
The film and its documentary seem to both share the same problem – they have a lot of interesting aspects to them, but both feel too long and come off vaguely dissatisfying. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a terrible film, but it’s not a particularly great one either. Still, it’s definitely worth watching, at least once. Just know that the film, unlike its title character, starts to get old as the time goes on.