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Benjamin Button Is Curiously Short on Life Lessons

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated May 07, 2009
<i>Benjamin Button</i> Is Curiously Short on Life Lessons

DVD Release Date:  May 8, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  December 25, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking)
Genre:  Drama, Adaptation
Run Time:  165 min.
Director:  David Fincher
Actors:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng, Jared Harris, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film about a baby born with the infirmities of a man in his 80s who grows younger and more physically robust as he ages, purports to give audiences a unique prism through which to evaluate the meaning and purpose of life.

Always lovely to look at, this prestige picture from director David Fincher, written by Eric Roth, provides so many captivating images that it takes a while for viewers to discover how little the film has to say. Running nearly three hours, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button turns out to be curiously lacking in insights. Its numerous lines of dialogue about life purpose add up to very little.

The story opens against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, as an aging woman (Cate Blanchett) asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read the reminiscence of Benjamin Button—her suitor over several decades. Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, whose diary forms the framework for the telling of this long-winded tale.

Abandoned by his father but taken in by a young woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who declares him to be a “miracle,” Benjamin is raised in a nursing home. His boisterous, childlike spirit belies his aged appearance and irritates some of the other residents, but Queenie protects and nurtures him. She takes him to church every Saturday night, and it’s there, during a healing service, that Benjamin is first able to rise from his wheelchair and walk. Although the pastor is made to look somewhat buffoonish during that sequence, Queenie will later cite the healing as pivotal in Benjamin’s ability to overcome his physical frailties.

These early scenes are among the film’s most affecting, as Benjamin enjoys a serene existence under the protection of Queenie. He also meets Daisy (played by Elle Fanning as a child, and Blanchett as an adult), who will become the love of his life. They share a childlike worldview, but Benjamin’s outward appearance raises eyebrows among onlookers. Daisy becomes a dancer and tours the world, and her departure marks the end of innocence for Benjamin’s life, and for the movie’s until-then gentle story.

Benjamin finds work on a tugboat, where the captain (Jared Harris) makes it his mission to help Benjamin lose his virginity. Shortly thereafter, Benjamin enters into a lengthy affair with a married woman (Tilda Swinton). Soon Benjamin is thrown into World War II, where he experiences violent death that contrasts with the peaceful passing of life among the residents in the facility where he was raised.

What’s most remarkable about the film isn’t what Benjamin remembers about these events, but the absence of any regret in the man’s life. Indeed, if viewers are to glean a new perspective on their own lives by watching Benjamin’s story, then learning from one’s mistakes, and a recognition of our weaknesses and failings, should be part of the film’s power. But the most “curious” aspect of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that missing piece of Benjamin’s story. Perhaps screenwriter Eric Roth, best known for adapting the novel of Forrest Gump and for co-writing the screenplay for Munich—both more provocative than this film—thinks it profound that characters faced with death say such things as, “When it comes to the end, you have to let go,” or “You never know what’s coming for you,” but Christian viewers will be looking for something more substantive.

As for those stars, Pitt as Benjamin represents a step back from his leading roles in Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The events of Button happen primarily around the character, not within him, making him rather uninteresting as a character; he is, like Forrest Gump, a passive figure, but unlike Gump, his effect on others cannot be clearly described as positive. Blanchett, one of our finest actresses, gives a performance that grows more graceful as her character ages, but ironically, Daisy is a more commanding screen presence as played as a child by Elle Fanning. Together, Pitt and Blanchett create less spark here than they did as a troubled married couple in the far superior Babel, where the pairing was one of just three storylines. Their performances in that film also revealed much more about the human condition and contemporary life in far less screen time.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not without its moments. An opening sequence about a clockmaker is outstanding, and the story behind an injury Daisy suffers is a mini movie within the larger tale, edited and paced with more verve than the rest of the film that surrounds it. A dance sequence performed by Daisy for Benjamin is memorably framed and lushly romantic—a highlight among the film’s impeccable visual presentation (it was shot by Claudio Miranda, who assisted director Fincher on several other visual masterpieces: Seven, The Game and Fight Club).

Director Fincher is coming off of a film that is now widely recognized by critics as one of last year’s best movies, Zodiac, a serial-killer drama on the surface that contained multiple layers beneath the story. His choice of Benjamin Button as his subsequent project feels like a play for mass appeal that didn’t pan out, despite the obvious talent assembled for the project. The movie is not a black mark on Fincher’s resume—or on the resume of anyone else involved in the project—but it’s the kind of lesser project that often earns industry plaudits for filmmakers who should have been honored for earlier, more satisfying work. Remember that when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nominated for multiple Oscars.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; foul language.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Drinking/drunkenness.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A man and woman kiss on a bed; a man’s bare back is shown, as is a man in a bathtub; a couple has sex under the sheets; Benjamin is taken to a brothel, where he loses his virginity; adulterous affairs; dancers backstage are in various states of dress; Benjamin recalls relationships with multiple women; a man and woman make love on the beach; Daisy jumps out of a mattress and grabs a sheet to cover herself; out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
  • Violence/Disturbing Imagery:  War violence, a man recalls being struck by lighting several times, but these images are meant to be somewhat humorous; vomiting; brawling; dead bodies float in the water; a woman is shown bleeding as she goes into labor.
  • Religion:  References to God include a mention of prayer for a soldier’s safety; a child is said to be a miracle; Benjamin attends church with his mother; a faith healing service; grace is said before a meal; a question about answered prayers; encouragement to say one’s prayers nightly; a man is said to look like he’s been born again; a brief discussion of Edgar Cayce; repeated remarks that we never know what’s coming for us, and that when the end comes, we just have to let go; a dying man is said to have a nice spot in heaven waiting for him; life is said to consist of a series of incidents beyond anyone’s control.