"Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?"
- Mrs Maple (Edith Ivey)
"Some nights, I'd have to sleep alone. I didn't mind, I would listen to the house breathin'. All those people sleepin'. I felt... safe."
- Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt)
At a glance:
Nominated for an Academy Award Best Picture, this sprawling birth-to-death saga about a man who is born old and ages backwards tries to be simple, nostalgic, romantic, poignant, and exciting, but the characters and the script fail to deliver an emotional payload, making it a very long journey indeed
Benjamin Button is born as a less-than-beautiful wrinkly Shar-Pei-style baby with the deteriorating body of a tiny senior citizen. Abandoned by his father, he is raised by a woman who runs an old-age home. Slowly, he ‘ages backwards’, getting younger (and taller) as the years pass. His epic story takes him to brothels, and into the teeth of war.
The Academy loves the lengthy epics, the period pieces with a bit of romance, tragedy, nostalgia, war, and, as an added bonus, at least a partial focus on the entertainment industry itself. The Academy loves long movies, period:
"Another point of contention is the recent extreme bias toward 2-plus hour films: Crash (2006, 113m) is the shortest film to win Best Picture in the past 20 years."
The central ‘big’ concept of this film is a man who is ageing backwards, yet strangely, while he is a child in a tiny old man’s body, he stays at home – inside – with a gathering of senior citizens who could care less. The situation could have been mined by forcing him to, say, go to school, or perhaps to even, for example, leave the house and do anything that involved more interaction; but, inexplicably, he doesn’t leave the house until he is about 18! What a waste of a concept, that, in reality, has limited impact anyway.
‘Button’ also has these major Academy draws:
- Flashback stories told from a deathbed by the sick and/or elderly (as in The English Patient)
- Birth-to-death stories about simple-minded guys of few words (as in Forrest Gump)
- Simple-minded guys who recite well-worn cliches as if they have just discovered some previously unknown gem of great import (e.g. "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you.") (as in Forrest Gump)
What have you done with my David Fincher? I’ve loved his tight, compact, entertaining movies like The Game and Panic Room. Granted, they weren’t Oscar material, and this one is. Is this his big attempt to win one? If so, I hope he does, so he can then go back to making good films that tell their story in under two hours.
I wondered most of the way through the movie: why is this old actress on her deathbed so bad – and so hard to understand? Finally, the penny dropped: This was Cate Blanchett in (admittedly incredible) old age makeup. Why? Why not get a real elderly actress to play this role? Honestly, surely an elderly woman could play an elderly woman better than a middle aged woman.
So I watched. For almost three hours, I watched. And, eventually, since there was no emotional impact to enthrall me, I found myself distracted by small things: like Brad Pitt’s strange southern/Brooklyn accent (he says ‘foist’ and ‘woist’ for ‘first’ and ‘worst’ like he’s mixing a bit of Bugs Bunny in there).
It truly is ‘Forrest Gump’ (Eric Roth wrote the screenplay for this and for Gump) in reverse: a massive journey from birth to death that will either involve and captivate you, or, alternatively, make you pine for movies and moviemakers that value brevity in storytelling. Sadly for the Button, I fall into the latter camp. Chuck Jones and the aforementioned Bugs Bunny could have told this entire story better in a seven minute cartoon (and maybe Pitt could be the ‘foist’ actor to play Bunny).
Fans of old-age makeup (again, I’m not one of them) will rank this higher, as both Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt are almost unrecognizably ancient at times.
Other reviewers said:
"Fincher's strange romantic epic has its greatest impact the first time around. Overall, the film seems more like a beautiful curio than anything else, a sort of artsy fartsy Forest Gump."
- Richard Knight (Windy City Times)
"This inventive treatment will intrigue and fulfill some audience members. But not me. Despite general critical euphoria (70% favorable on Rottentomatoes), I found it a plodding tours de force."
- Tony Macklin (Fayetteville Free Weekly)
"If only the screenplay had taken its time to fully and organically flesh out its characters and their emotions, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button would have been a much more emotionally powerful experience."
- Avi Offer (NYC Movie Guru)
"The movie is curiously listless, with all of its passion apparently expended on its technical feats."
- Matt Brunson (Creative Loafing)
"The A-list cheekbones, CGI wow factor and sensuous cinematography can't save it. This is Hollywood at full bluster -- spectacular and sometimes iconic, but emotionally half baked."
- Jason Di Rosso (MovieTime, ABC Radio National)
"With a running time of almost three slow-going hours, the movie definitely makes you feel as though you're aging forward."
- Peter Rainer (Christian Science Monitor)