The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

March 17 2009 at 1:10 pm (Cinema reviews)

benjamin-button-poster-1The main problem with director David Fincher’s epic tale of the backwards-ageing Button can be summed up by its tagline: ‘Life isn’t measured in minutes, but in moments.’ What does that even mean?

 

Some of cinema’s most significant films have been based on short stories. The Shawshank Redemption and Brokeback Mountain, for instance, were fleshed out beautifully from shorter works. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, however, was little more than an idea in the first place, and although it has certainly been fleshed out, there is little meat on its bones.

 

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), admittedly an ugly baby, is born in New Orleans on the last day of World War I, and is instantly rejected by his father. He meets a variety of people throughout his life, all of whom seem to understand but rarely voice his predicament: his mind ages in the same way as the rest of us while his body ages in reverse. That’s the idea, and that is also the plot.

 

Benjamin Button shares a writer with Forrest Gump and it’s easy to see the overlap between the two: both films tell the life of a unique individual via using 20th century American history as a backdrop. But film critic Mark Kermode calling this ‘Forrest Gump with A-levels’ is a generous distinction. The fact that Benjamin ages backwards should give him character, but he has no more depth or intelligence, and gleans even less from his experiences than Tom Hanks’ big hearted dimwit.

 

For a film that concerns itself so much with the passing of time, it has trouble finding a theme. At least Forrest Gump told us something (that you don’t have to have brains to make something of yourself). It’s not until the closing moments that you realise that the simple passage of time may be the theme. It just feels like a wasted opportunity: where are Benjamin’s musings on the nature of mortality? Where is the amusing scene of a teenage Benjamin discovering his wrinkly body for the first time? Instead you get Benjamin working on a boat (so?), having a brief dalliance with the English wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat in snowy Russia (who cares?) and riding a Harley down an open road in the 1950s (zzzz).

 

So it may look good but does it really have to last nearly three hours? The answer, sadly, is yes, which is why Fincher has really shot himself in the foot. For the gimmick to work (and it is little more than an extended gimmick) it’s simply not enough to see parts of the life, but the life in its entirety. Anything less would leave the audience feeling short-changed. It’s a nice story but little else, and maybe that’s what Fincher was going for. After all, why do we need a theme to tie a film together? Can’t it just be a very long nice story?

 

Either way, it is, at least, a very good-looking story. This is the closest thing that Fincher, the master of creepy rain-sodden suspense, has ever got to a sweeping romance but he hasn’t completely forgotten his shadowy roots. At its heart, it’s still a dark film – the whole story is told by Daisy’s (Cate Blanchett) daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) as she reads her mother’s diary to her while on her hospital deathbed as Hurricane Katrina rages outside.

 

Pitt carries the film well, and Blanchett is as radiant as ever, but it’s the make-up and visual effects that are truly jaw dropping. Scene by scene, Pitt subtly and seamlessly grows slightly younger and Blanchett slightly older, making you feel like you’re catching up with a friend you haven’t seen for just a couple of months. Or in Pitt’s case, that you won’t see for a couple of months. Or something like that.

 

Still Benjamin Button is a film about surfaces; the fact that all the work has gone into perfecting the physical appearance of the characters underlines the fact that beneath the glossy sheen, it’s ultimately an empty experience.

 

Rating: 3/5

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