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Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Click for full sized poster

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett with Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond
Screenplay by Eric Roth; story by Roth and Robin Swicord
Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Directed by David Fincher

IN SHORT: The most unique film we've ever seen. [Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. 165 minutes]

Again, the most unique film we've ever seen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is epic in scope and runtime and almost -- almost -- scores a bulls eye. Its run time of two hours 45 minutes passes quickly. Whether or not the film works for you depends on whether or not you fall for the characters on screen. We felt the gimmick and the use of flashback overwhelmed a truly ambitious effort. The brief history of the story, important in its own way first . . .

Mark Twain wondered, bitterly, why it was that all the life experiences you store in your person are wasted on a body that biologically deteriorates. Think of it this way: Everything you know by age 70 would come in real handy if you still had the body of a 20 year old. F. Scott Fitzgerald, famous for novels like "The Great Gatsby," wrote the story for Collier's Magazine in 1922 (you can read it online, here). We don't compare to the Source Material and so don't care about whatever changes have been made to make this film fit with the experiences of a 21st century viewing audience. For those who haven't just looked at the rating, know that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sits on our lists as the best directed film of the year.

There are two stories that frame the bulk of the film. Begin with a clockmaker in New Orleans, whose only son was killed in what was then known as The Great War -- WWI to you and me. When unveiled at the New Orleans train terminal for which it was commissioned, the clock ran backwards. Perhaps by turning back the clock, "those lost in the Great War could be restored to the land of the living" -- it is a vain hope of a grief stricken father but, coincidentally on the last day of the War, when that clock is unveiled,  one Benjamin Button is born. Hideously deformed and appearing to bear all the maladies of an elderly person, the birthing process kills his mother and drives a grief stricken father -- there's a lot of that going around -- to steal the baby from its crib and head for the nearest of New Orleans’ famous canals to drown it. A policeman on the beat interrupts the act and a chase ensues, with the elder Button getting away with the baby. It doesn't change his desire to get away from the child, and he leaves it on the steps of Nolan House, a retirement home run by a woman called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Believing that the babe has only days to live, Queenie determines to care for it. The child doesn't die and she, for all intents and purposes, becomes mommy.

And so this creature, this child in a little old man body grows. His cataracts disappear and he is confined to a wheelchair and mommy takes him to a faith healer and praise God! there is a miracle and the boy walks. Almost as if director David Fincher were rubbing the nose of religion in science, there's a Newtonian reaction that occurs alongside the miracle and that's a sad chuckle.

The granddaughter of one of the residents comes to live in the house. Her name is Daisy and she and Benjamin form a fast friendship. From here on out any viewer with a basic knowledge of mathematics will figure out the how-long-is-it-gonna-take equation that will bring the pair together. That's a clunky way of saying, this is the only relationship that can be seen coming in advance, but it's one that is way off as a teenaged Benjamin takes a job on a local salvage tug doing the scut jobs that no on wants to do. Eventually, aged 17, he leaves home entirely and sets off to sea. The salvage tug is "useful" as World War II hits and Benjamin finds himself working out of Murmansk, Russia. His land base is a residential  hotel -- not unlike a retirement home, eh? -- and a new relationship is formed with the wife of a British envoy (meaning" "spy"). She is Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swinton) and she cannot sleep at night. Heh Heh and very slowly and discreetly. It is at moments like these that the viewer has to crunch the numbers and match the emotional/ chronological age with what is being seen on screen.

So we continue watching Button de-age. His life is just a way to see how other lives continue and interact with his wide eyed, child-like curiosity. His biological father reenters his life. Daisy becomes a professional dancer and goes off to success in the real world, snubbing Benjamin's advances. When something extraordinary strikes her down, Benjamin is off to Paris to tend to his friend. Bad idea. Eventually Daisy will come around -- those that have not been swept away by the growing romantic lyricism have already worked out the simple mathematical equation in (our) head -- and we know this because all we see is written in a Diary kept by Button, which is in Daisy's possession and which her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads to her on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans.

That last paragraph is a lot to digest, I know. What we have here is something that rarely happens to an A-list hero. Brad Pitt's Benjamin is, essentially, "passive". The film packs so much detail into the lives of all the people that Button meets that all that is left for his character to do is react. It becomes (almost) a secondary gimmick. That may be the reason that yours Cranky was, initially, negative about the film as a whole. Pitt as a passive character? Not for our ten bucks!

Then again, we don't pay for the screening and, remarkably, this twist of the cinematic knife works.

The farther we got away from our initial view of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the brief notes we made at the time, the more we come to appreciate the film as a whole. Long time readers know that that kind of statement means wait and rent, which it does.

On the other hand, Fincher and DP Claudio Miranda have created such a series of breathtaking images that a big screen viewing is called for.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he would have paid . . .


As a card carrying member of the Director's Guild, let me say that I haven't seen a project so beautifully conceived and executed in many years. I walked out of the screening knowing I had seen something extraordinary. I reported my (initial) negative reaction to the publicity machine but, as I write in the middle of the usual December glut of Oscar wannabees, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button rises  high on all technical levels. That it didn't make the emotional connection with the audience (and in a screening room, that audience is me) is the only negative still on the plate.

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Benjamin Button age 8 (Chandler Canterbury + Brad Pitt) Benjamin at 36 (Patrick Holland) Daisy age 6 (Elle Fanning) Daisy age 10 (Madisen Beaty) .

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.