Another Movie Guy: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I normally review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. Today there is a slight deviation because I am in the midst of a holiday hangover. As penance for an incomplete column, I will do a complete write-up of The Wrestler later this week. As always, you should still feel free to angrily disagree.

There are few things that can be said with certainty. One of them is that time only moves in one direction. David Fincher‘s The Curious of the Benjamin Button tries to find a way around this certainty. It cannot convincingly tell the story of a man who ages in reverse because one simply cannot do so. The premise is riddled with holes, and while the movie is beautiful and has some effective scenes, it does not achieve more.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is indeed born under unusual circumstances. World War I just ended. Benjamin’s mother died in childbirth, and upon looking at a wrinkly baby, his horrified father leaves the baby on a doorstep. He’s only been around a short while, but with the body of an old man, Benjamin finds a home among others with wrinkles and bad hips. He meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett as an adult), a redhead who is the granddaughter of a housemate. Benjamin’s body begins to be more youthful. He spends time at sea, has an affair, goes to war, and eventually returns home. Daisy is now a young woman, but his romantic relationship with her does not begin until they look about the same age. Because of his predicament, Benjamin feels that he cannot stay with his love. All this is told in flashback as we see Daisy’s daughter (Julia Ormond) read Benjamin’s diary to her dying mother.

For a premise that toys with time in such a way, it needs a consistent framework for any emotional impact. We understood the rules and limitations of Bill Murray’s universe in Groundhog Day, so when his character changes, it makes a certain sense. There is no such consistency in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Consider, for example, the mental state of someone who ages backward. Age is not just defined by one’s appearance and physical limitations. At the start of his life, does Benjamin have the mental state of an old man? As his life continues, does Benjamin’s mind become more youthful as well? There are small clues suggesting that only his body ages backward, and his mind ages forward. But if Benjamin Button ages backward, shouldn’t everything age backward? The movie does not know how to answer this question because it is impossible to answer. Screenwriter Eric Roth cherry picks how Benjamin ages backward, and because of this, the character is incomplete. And because he’s never fully developed, it’s difficult to care about his relationships. Brad Pitt really does his best. Even he cannot escape the fact that time only goes in one direction.

I said earlier that the movie looks great. Fincher, director of such dark fare as Se7en and Fight Club, is an expert stylist. Here he has an impeccable eye for period detail, and there’s something to admire in every shot. Some scenes, like the one in which Benjamin’s ship is attacked by a German U-boat, are thrilling. Other scenes, like the one in which a youthful Benjamin fucks an aging Daisy, are perfunctory and even a little creepy. Friends and family have observed that I have seen too many movies, and have become nitpicky. They may be right. Nevertheless, I cannot help that I did not find the movie affecting, so with these paragraphs, I try to explain why. Roth, Fincher, and Pitt simply bit off more than they could chew. They could not elude what is certain.

That’s it for this weeks “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in later this week when I enter the ring.