By Laila Casey-Walsh (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)

 

The (not so) Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s quirky short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” had all the possible ingredients for success. But even a hunky Brad Pitt can’t save this time bomb, writes Laila Casey-Walsh.

“Nothing ever lasts,” a pensive, albeit extremely gorgeous Brad Pitt muses halfway through the 2 hour 40 minute film. And that statement rings true, as inevitably, neither does my patience for this movie by the end of the first hour.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button documents the life of Benjamin, a not so ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances, in which he ages backwards, being born as an old man and growing younger as he “ages.”

Throughout the film, we see little snippets of history captured in time, such as WWII, a la Forest Gump.

Yet make no mistake, this movie is no Forest Gump, unfortunately. Despite the quirky idea, Benjamin Button is just another film that has been churned through the Hollywood factory, syruped with melancholy and philosophy, a failed attempt at reaching out for the sweet memories of nostalgia but just falling short of grasp.

While watching this movie, it’s easy to forget that the director is none other than David Fincher- the acclaimed genius of physiological thrillers such as Gone Girl, Seven and Fight Club – especially when watching Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt soaking in loved up bliss to the accompanying tunes of Twist and Shout (something we all wanted to do when a shirtless Pitt speared on screen).

In fact, this film is a glass of bubbly champagne compared to the mulled, dark whisky Fincher normally produces.

Yet he seems to enjoy it. Including as many as 4 metaphors heavily seeping throughout, and with so many characters it’s impossible to remember them all. It seems to be just a little self-indulgent, with Fincher wanting to include everything (seriously, everything), and momentarily forgetting the all-important concept of quality over quantity.

Following the death of his father in 2003, Fincher wanted to explore the concept of death on a personal level, stating that the movie “is about the dents that people make in each other, the scars they leave on one another as they move through life.”

Accompanying him was screenwriter Eric Roth, the mastermind behind the classic comedy drama Forest Gump. With the similar generational concept, you get the feeling that Roth is trying to relive his glory days, yearning for the tantalising smell of success that was felt all those years ago.

Try as he might though, Button is no Gump, with Benjamin Button lacking the heart and soul that was so present in Forrest Gump, making this film a clunky and awkward trip down memory lane, unlike the silky smooth one present in Forrest Gump.

There’s no denying, however, the all-star cast present in the film. Featuring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as lovers Benjamin and Daisy, the chemistry between these two is palpable throughout the whole film.

However, Pitt, while certainly very pleasant to look at, even as a 70 year old, seems emotionally disconnected from the audience, likely a causality of Roth’s writing, where death in this movie is a blasé topic simply swept under the rug. Benjamin comes across extremely desensitised, lacking the emotional connection which is needed in a film as deep as this to pull audience members in.

Blanchett, likewise, does a great job at working with what she has been given, nailing the deep southern accent to a tee. However, the character of Daisy comes across as exceedingly unlikeable and a downright selfish character, taking a good 30 years to get her act together.

It’s an extremely slow burn for the couple, and, paired with that disconnect, one that finds the audience not really rooting for the couple because at the end of the day, we just don’t care.

However, a standout from this film is easily Taraji P. Henson, who plays the character of Benjamin’s adopted “mama.” Spurting pearls of wisdom such as, “you never know what’s coming for you,” this actress helps to add light to the candle that is desperately needed to flicker.

Admittedly, the whole concept of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is undoubtedly strange, thanks to the writing of F Scott Fitzgerald. But it’s what we’ve come to expect of the man who, thanks to his amazing talents (and some alcohol) was able to turn the impossible to possible on paper. From the bestselling author of The Great Gatsby, this quirky short story (just 25 pages long) of a man ageing backwards was not one meant to be taken too seriously. Written in the 1920s as a social comment on society’s obsession with ageing, the short story is a charming comedic piece, rather than a tear jerker, with the novel featuring Benjamin as a cigar smoking one year old, with a cane and a wrinkly face to boot.

Written as a barb to those in Hollywood, the story laughs at society’s obsession with ageing and keeping up with appearances, examining how we focus on grey hairs and wrinkles. It’s a story that’s more relevant than ever in today’s society, where Botox and hair dye are our best friend and those who dare to go “au natural” are seen as lazy and defeated.

This message however, does simply not translate onto the big screen, thanks to the grave changes that were made with the adaptation. In fact, it’s safe to say that it’s more appropriate to call this movie a transformation, to save Fitzgerald from rolling over in his grave.

Completely new characters and storylines were added into the film, and those from the novel subsequently taken out. Benjamin’s romance with Daisy, while the main storyline throughout the entire movie, was not present throughout the book. In fact, there was no Daisy. In the short story, Benjamin’s relationship with a woman called Hildegarde is much less “star-crossed lovers” and more love/hate, with the relationship, while initially romantic, culminating in infidelity, thanks to the horny, teenage angst of Benjamin, who grows disgusted at his wife’s ageing looks. This is in stark contrast to the movie, where Benjamin and Daisy, whose love is present throughout the entire movie, make promises to love one another when she’s “old and wrinkly” and he “has acne”, till death do us part.

This addition of romance, and elimination of some of the humorous moments in the short story, such as Benjamin’s old man tendencies, completely changes the original message of the book to one which emphasises the importance of time, urging audience members to treasure every moment with their loved ones. A nice idea, but also hardly an earth shattering and brand new one, thanks to countless of films paving the way beforehand.

This ‘Kumbaya’ concept of living life to the fullest is represented in the scene where Benjamin goes travelling, starting his life over again after leaving Daisy and his newborn child. Ambient lighting and a mixture of close up and expansive shots of Benjamin is featured to exuberant feelings of candidacy, while the diegetic sound of Benjamin is used to narrate the scene through a letter to his daughter, claiming that it’s “never too late to start over” and “be who you want to be.” Yawn. The soft, familiar piano music, used heavily throughout the film, accompanies this. The scene gives the readers a feeling of wanderlust and freedom, an irony in a film that so harshly exposes the stark and depressing reality of time. The footage itself of Benjamin’s travels is extremely captivating, a kryptonite of colour and culture.

However, the scene, like the majority of the movie, seems a bit stale, and almost too perfect. Despite his best efforts, Fincher has created a film which lacks the rawness and honesty which is needed to leave a profound effect on audience members.

Fincher has further utilised his creative side in the film to create a beginning and end that is completely divergent to that in the book. While the novel simply starts off with Benjamin’s extraordinary birth, and ends with him as a newborn fading off into nothingness, providing a nice bookend from start to finish, the film has the added character of Daisy “telling” the story through Benjamin’s diary, while on her death bed with her daughter Caroline.

Used to show the parallels of ageing by juxtaposing Benjamin’s ageing with Daisy’s, the film often stops throughout, flashing back to present day Daisy as she herself slips closer and closer into nothingness.

While it’s easy to see the concept that Fincher envisioned from this, when transitioned on the big screen, the whole idea comes across as unnecessary and downright irritating, as it obstructs the flow of the movie, with elderly Daisy and her daughter clogging up screen time that, let’s face it, doesn’t need to be utilised.

Fincher’s whole concept of timing is conspicuous in what can only be described as the “what if’ scene, in which the importance of timing is shown. While there is not much to praise about in this movie, Fincher’s incredible eye for detail, and his ability to capture a particular concept in a 2 minute scene, is genius. Delving deeper into the idea of time- a theme extremely stagnant throughout the whole film- Fincher presents the perception that even a split second can entirely change the sequence of life. Using the diegetic sound of the music, the scene is one which is hustle and bustle, representing the idea that time is always ticking, and that we are always working against the clock. He uses a montage to intersperse stranger’s lives together, showing the domino effect of time. A dark filter is used to show the everyday, mundane activities of life, such as catch a taxi and waking up, however the main character Daisy is dressed in a bright yellow dress to capture the audience’s attention, a crushed flower suffering the inevitable effects of time.

While the concept of a man ageing backwards is all good and well over text, bringing it to life seems almost impossible. After all, there’s a reason why even Steven Spielberg, of all directors, turned down the magnificent task.

Fincher, however, has always loved a challenge, and Button’s ageing is no exception. Using a CGI, Fincher placed the actor’s heads on the bodies of the older, or younger actors, to create older and younger versions of Pitt and Blanchett, to virtually show the ageing process. This is extremely effective during the beginning, particularly for an elderly Pitt. However, these effects do not seem to work as well the opposite way, with an extremely young Blanchett and Pitt almost seeming TOO young, too perfected. Their skin is so airbrushed that it could be mistaken for a creamy, blank canvas, with no flaws, no wrinkles, it doesn’t look human. And Pitts return as a much younger man shows his face hiding in the shadows, to try and mark the distortion. While it doesn’t look unlike Pitt by any means, you get the feeling that something just didn’t go quite right in the CGI process.

At the end of the day, though, the biggest shame of this movie is the potential. With an all-star cast, along with David Fincher and Eric Roth at the head, this movie could have been something that was talked about for generations. Unfortunately, though, this film is one which is likely to be tucked away into the dusty shelves, banished along with dozens of others like it, and forgotten. While a transformation can sometimes be for the best, sadly, this movie just didn’t hit those buttons (pun intended).

As the movie says throughout, we only have so much time on this earth- the clock never stops ticking. So take my advice, and save yourself from 2 hours and 40 minutes of time that you’ll never get back

Rating: 2/5

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