“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” arriving Christmas day in theaters, is an ambitious film with a quirky, unique premise. Equipped with stellar special effects and excellent production values, “Button” seems poised for Academy Award gold. So what’s the problem?
For those who haven’t seen an ad or a trailer, “Benjamin Button” follows the story of a man (Brad Pitt), who is born at the end of World War I and abandoned by his father due to his physical deformity. Left on the doorstep of an inn, the wrinkled, disfigured child is taken up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who sees him as a miracle, even if not exactly the one most are used to.
Benjamin is indeed a miracle, as it’s discovered he was born an old man, and is aging backwards. Each year the wrinkles disappear, his legs get sturdier, his body gets stronger, etc. Early on he befriends Daisy, a little girl who is theoretically his age but physically the two are worlds apart. Their relationship becomes the centerpiece of the film, as the two bump into each other throughout good, and bad times in both their lives. Meanwhile, Benjamin prepares for the effects aging backwards will ultimately have on his life.
There are certainly positives in the film. There is an abundant display of creativity abound, alive in the depictions of Benjamin growing from old man to child. The critical importance of time is well utilized in the movie, as indicated in a heartbreaking scene where just a few seconds in another direction would have prevented a tragedy. The cinematography is beautiful and drenched in a deep brown hue and the locales are all lush.
Sadly, for all of its hard work, the film is only a mild success. Clocking in at almost three hours, the length is one very significant issue. Don’t get me wrong, “Titanic” was three hours and audiences were enthralled by each passing moment. Forrest Gump, a movie “Button” will undoubtedly be compared to (screenwriter Eric Roth wrote both films), also was a bit long but managed to win over audiences. This film, however, is very deliberate in the pacing, and thus more than feels like three hours long. The events play out at a snail’s pace, a technique that becomes tedious eventually.
Perhaps part of the pace and running time being an issue could also be attributed to the direction and the script. Director David Fincher is not interested in being melodramatic or sappy. This is the man who brought us the hard-edged “Seven” after all. Eric Roth’s script is realized in a matter of fact way, blending Benjamin’s magical circumstances into a real life love story. The whole approach is refreshing at points, but also attributes to the sluggish pace and makes the whole thing feel a bit ho hum in the end. The last act of the film is a notable problem, with indications that the drama is swelling to a stirring climax. That moment never comes, and much of the audience may be wondering what the point is.
Finally, the emotional subtlety of the film really cripples crossover mainstream appeal. Movies like “Titanic” and “Gump” used sledgehammers to manipulate audience reactions; “Button” merely tickles them with a feather. This again is interesting, seeing as death absolutely permeates the film, but the subject is dealt with realistically and as a part of life. Neither approach to emotionally engaging an audience in the extreme is a good thing, but “Button” is just a bit too slight, with reactions from characters and situations often subdued. For all of these reasons, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is an emotionally quiet film that’s occasionally moving, but fails to ultimately connect as the great story it aspires to be.