The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.
Nevertheless, despite these narrative and structural similarities The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does not engage in history to nearly the same extent as Forrest Gump did and nor does it contain the deeply troubling neo-conservative agenda that Forrest Gump hid under its veneer of whimsical entertainment. Instead The Curious Case of Benjamin Button focuses on the love story between Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and the object of his desire Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Indeed, the key to enjoying this film is to realise that it is little more than a sweeping tragic romance about a love that defies all boundaries and yet can only ever be briefly fulfilled.
In other words, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is essentially a grand melodrama with some wonderful flights of Magical Realism, that frequently evoke films such as Tim Burton’s Big Fish. It also occasionally diverges into some great sequences depicting the cruelties of fate and irony, in a way that is not dissimilar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
A huge part of what makes this film succeed to the extent that it does is the direction of David Fincher whose previous films with Brad Pitt, Se7en and Fight Club, are modern masterpieces. While The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not in the same league as those films, it is wonderfully atmospheric and technically brilliant. Fincher is a true cinematic craftsman and his skill in constructing every shot is evident in both scenes where he is flaunting his command of film style and also in scenes where he allows the style to take a back seat to the narrative. There are many technical gimmicks in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are worth noting, in particular the remarkable aging make-up that is used on various members of the cast. Although not as successful on Blanchett, the combination of make-up and digital altering that is used on Pitt during various stages in the film is remarkable.
In terms of immediate emotional impact, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is extremely satisfying. There are many heartfelt moments that are beautifully delivered, as they should be in any melodrama. Upon reflection however, the faults in the film become apparent. Despite being over two and a half hours long, the themes of aging, death, grief, love and life seem to only ever be touched upon and never fully explored. The representation of the female characters and attitudes to women is a little suspect, although not nearly as offensively so as in Forrest Gump. While the idea of somebody who physically becomes younger while mentally and emotionally grows older is a fascinating concept, not enough is done with it except to present it as a hurdle to the central love story. Nevertheless, this is still a very good film and deserves a lot of admiration. Brad Pitt continues to prove his frequently disregarded skills as an actor, especially in the early parts of the film where he plays a child in an old man’s body. While Cate Blanchett can often be overly affected and mannered in the way she acts, she is so naturally radiant in this film that she over comes the fact that her character is underwritten. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a curious film that will not go down in cinematic history but contains enough elements to make it a film worth seeing and briefly savouring.