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Scoop! Review of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON Plus Q & A with Brad Pitt, David Fincher

Submitted by on November 11, 2008 – 6:00 am33 Comments

Last night, I attended the first L.A. audience screening (meaning not a test screening) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (out Dec. 25), where Brad Pitt and director David Fincher did Q & A afterwards. I haven’t seen a review anywhere else because the movie was only recently finished (Fincher said there are still 3 shots he’d like to fix) so this might be the first.

Before I get to the movie’s review and fun facts learned from Pitt and Fincher in person (who practically put on a comedy routine), I want to mention that in the next couple weeks, I’ll be going to screenings of some hotly anticipated Oscar bait like Australia, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road and Doubt, so make sure you bookmark this page for all the scoop.

I also have 3 beautiful, glossy Benjamin Button programs that were handed out at the screening. They’re 6 pages long and not available anywhere else. They contain color photographs plus Q & A and testimonials from Pitt, Fincher, Cate Blanchett, screenwriter Eric Roth and producer Kathleen Marshall. On Nov. 16, I’ll randomly select 3 people from my subscribers list to receive one so if you’d like a program, subscribe now!

OK, on to the movie review. It’s based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story but it’s been expanded quite a bit because the epic film runs about 2:45 long. It opens in New Orleans in a hospital as Katrina is approaching. Fincher uses the framing device of Blanchett’s character, Daisy, on her death bed to tell Benjamin’s story. Julia Ormond (wasted in a thankless role) plays her daughter Caroline, who reads from her mother’s diary, taking us into flashbacks about a baby born in New Orleans in 1918 looking like an 80-year-old man (an older woman takes one look at the baby and says, “He looks just like my ex-husband!”). We soon find out this baby is not near death, as a doctor suspects, but will in fact get younger as he ages. This might have something to do with a newly installed clock in the local train station that tells time backwards. The clock was created by the mysterious Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), who wanted time to go backwards so that his son, killed in World War I, might come back to him.

The baby’s father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), who actually owns a button factory, is so horrified by his son’s wrinkled visage, he first intends to throw him in a river but then changes his mind and leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home, where caretaker Queenie (the spirited Taraji P. Henson) finds him and takes him in. Queenie, who’d been told she couldn’t have children, isn’t fazed by the baby’s condition (ossified bones, cataract-filled eyes), calling him “a miracle, just not the kind one hopes to see.”

curious-case-benjamin-button

Queenie raises the boy in the nursing home, where Benjamin has no idea at first that he’s not old like everyone else. Here, he meets red-headed Daisy for the first time as a 5-year-old (visiting her grandmother) and is instantly infatuated. They embark on a friendship that evolves into a love that lasts for the rest of their lives despite their impossible circumstances. Before they can meet again as lovers in mid-life, Benjamin finds work on a tugboat and heads off to see the world, while Daisy becomes a star ballet dancer, performing in Paris and with the Bolshoi in Russia.

pitt-blanchett

When they finally come together as lovers, it’s with the knowledge it can’t last. “Will you still love me when my skin is old and sagging?” she asks. “Will you still love me when I have acne?” he retorts. Complications and separations ensue until they come together again one last time at the end of their lives in drastically different forms.

Pitt, buried in old-man makeup for most of the movie (we only get to see him as golden boy for about 15 minutes), gives a nice, subtle performance full of wonder and longing. When the 7-year-old Benjamin crawls into a makeshift tent with 5-year-old Daisy to share secrets, the scene could’ve been creepy because after all, it’s a grown man under some sheets with a little girl. It’s a testament to Pitt’s skill, then, that we’re able to overlook his old-man exterior to see the innocence in Benjamin’s eyes and realize it’s really just two kids playing.

Having said that, I wasn’t as moved by this film as I wanted to be. This was number one on my list of must-see holiday movies and I so wanted to be blown away but it just didn’t happen. This movie is a very ambitious effort—it looks gorgeous, there are some groundbreaking special effects and the rest of the cast also do excellent work but it’s the kind of movie you respect more than love. It’s like a piece of art that you look at and say, “It’s pretty,” but don’t necessarily want to bring home.

I think the problem for me was the stakes weren’t high enough for Benjamin and there was no sense of urgency throughout most of his life. Except for his father’s initial reaction, everyone pretty much accepts Benjamin upon first meeting. He doesn’t go to school where other kids beat up on him, he gets a demanding job as crew member on a tugboat while looking like a fragile old man and the captain barely questions it, and Daisy knows right away he’s not as old as he looks when she first meets him. In order for the film to be more compelling, Benjamin needs more obstacles to overcome. Even when he sees some action in World War II, we don’t fear for his safety because we already know the film will probably take us to the end of his life to fully explore his extraordinary condition. (I haven’t read the short story so if any of you have, please leave a comment and tell me how this differs from Fitzgerald’s version.)

I’m surprised there aren’t more riveting moments in this movie, considering it’s directed by Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en). I was attracted to it after hearing that Fincher would take the unsentimental route. Well, it’s unsentimental almost to the point of passivity. This isn’t to say it’s boring—it isn’t. Many times, it’s even laugh-out-loud funny (watch for an old man repeatedly telling people he’s been hit by lightning seven times). There are visually interesting aspects—the film looks like old stock at times, where you can see the pops and scratches like on an old newsreel. The color is sometimes muted, sometimes overly saturated, like the unnatural tones of a black and white movie that’s been colorized. The crash of the tugboat against a German submarine is breathtaking, Titanic-like but on a much smaller scale. The score by Alexandre Desplat (Oscar-nominated for The Queen but I thought his score for The Painted Veil was more enchanting) is lovely as usual.

All this amounts to a lot of value for your money, an especially attractive quality this holiday season. I just wish I could’ve been more moved by this character’s life story instead of being left feeling like a casual observer.

Call me only mildly Curious.

Rating: Good

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this post, where I’ll report what Pitt and Fincher shared during the Q & A.

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33 Comments »

  • Terri says:

    Did you sign a confidentiality form?
    Because everything you have written, for those of us who have read the script, you’ve stated absolutely nothing new.
    Also, how was Julia Ormand wasted?
    I’m just glad to see her in this highly anticipated film. It’s not as if she is vying for too many high profile film roles these days.

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Terri,

    No, I didn’t sign any confidentiality agreement. I just didn’t want to give away too many spoilers for those who haven’t read the script.

    I love Julia Ormond as well and therefore wanted a juicier role for her. She basically sat by Cate Blanchett’s bed and read from the diary. There were a couple moments when she cried as she read but otherwise, she didn’t get to do much. Maybe she just wanted to be part of this movie in some way so the disappointment is probably all mine.

  • Ollie says:

    Thanks for the report!

    You said that cast was excellent, basically. But how was Blanchett in the movie exactly? I have read the script and found it’s not a very showy role but has its depth. Did Cate deliver well?

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Ollie,

    I love me some Cate and she did a fine job (is she capable of anything less?) but I can’t say this is a standout role for her. It’s not her fault; Daisy is just too…nice. She loves Benjamin and she loves to dance but other than that, she’s not that complicated.

    They also did this weird effect where they air-brushed every line from her face when she’s playing Daisy in her early 20s, giving Cate this blank, porcelain doll look. I get that she’s not in her 20s (I’ve seen her up close in real life and she has AMAZING skin) but they didn’t have to erase her face and create such a mask-like effect. I like Cate with all her expressions.

  • Rogenia says:

    Do you think this film will be nominated for an oscar? What about Brad and Cate? Oscar worthy? I read the short story and it was good. He did come in to conflict when he wanted to go to college. The short story is different and very interesting. In the movie you saw does it show B.B. as he ages back to a baby? Would love to receive a copy of the program! I am looking forward to seeing this movie.

  • Kate says:

    Thanks for your report.
    How was Taraji P. Henson? you think her role deserves an oscar nom?
    The screening was at the Mann Bruin theater?

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Rogenia,

    B.B. never even mentions college in the film so thanks for that. He does age all the way to infancy.

    Regarding this movie’s Oscar-worthiness, it will probably get some technical noms like makeup, special effects, maybe score. Best Picture? Likely, because it’s epic, this has been a really weak year and I don’t see a lot of strong contenders on the horizon. I wouldn’t call it the one to beat, though, at least not until I get to see the others.

    Pitt might get one because what he did was difficult but he might be eclipsed by showier turns from the male leads in movies like MILK, FROST/NIXON and THE WRESTLER. I like his performance but it’s hard to get all fired up about such a passive character. I don’t know if Cate Blanchett’s role was complex enough for her to garner a nom. If anyone has a chance, it would be Taraji P. Henson for Supporting Actress.

    I’ll randomly pick 3 people from my subscribers list to send programs to so if you haven’t subscribed, just click on the subscription link from the front page. Thanks for your interest!

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Kate,

    Taraji P. Henson was terrific, IMHO the strongest actress in the film (see above comment for her Oscar worthiness). I’ve never seen a performance of hers I didn’t like.

    Yes, the screening was at the Bruin.

  • BenButton says:

    Thanks for the review. Do you know, when/where, they will have the premiere for this movie? I wonder when Paramount is going to start marketing, promoting it more, start the campaign. Thanks, again.

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi BenButton,

    I have no idea when the premiere will be or when Paramount will start publicizing it more aggressively. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know!

  • ARB says:

    Thanks for the review! Way to stay on top of things. I hadn’t heard about any screenings until later this month.

    I read the short story in college and found it fascinating. With that cast, I was really looking forward to ponying up my cash opening weekend but it sounds to me like I could actually wait. I’ll reserve final judgment until after I read what Pitt and Fincher have to say in the Q & A.

  • sami says:

    Thanks for the review.

    Am still buzzed for this film, it’s great to hear all the performers did a good job. I haven’t read the short story, because I wanted to go in with little expectations.

  • Christian says:

    Thanks for the write-up. I love your careful dissection of the film. I am actually a SAG voter and Taraji was one of the reasons that I voted for HUSTLE & FLOW as ensemble movie of the year a couple of years back. She is VERY underrated.

  • Katie says:

    there is so much buzz about this movie, it is nice to actually read an actual review. thank you!

  • Read the short story a few months ago.. and the story hits a several different emotional centers that are very moving. The mechanism the story uses really nails the dynamic of how each person is at a different place in their lives than the next person (even if that next persons is their lover, parent, friend)- and the disconnect always between them. The eloquence of the final few lines in the written piece drove home the melancholy, fleeting reality. For the film, I’m hoping at the very least: Pitt & Fincher= quality, Blanchett=well rounded figure (both positive & negatively), Good period piece= escape from some of the big issues at hand today.

  • Finchercooldrinker says:

    Thanks for the review and the q and a post.

    I have to say that I find your critique a tad bit unfair.

    If you go to a movie saying to yourself I am going to cry or be moved and then are not, maybe the problem was your expectations and not the film itself.

    Secondly you assessment that it was hard for you get too attached to Benjamin because his journey was too easy.

    Forest Gump’s Journey is very easy, yet that movie moved many people, including me.

    Everything forest does despite being “simple” he is extraordinary at.

    He’s the best wide receiver, he’s a idiot in the world but a genius in the military, he’s a world class ping-pong champ. He meets every president of his era, he becomes a shrimp boat captain and becomes rich, Lt. Dan invest that money in apple computers and he just “don’t have to worry about money any more. One less thing to worry about”

    So given the both films are written by Eric Roth and both film are about similar themes of life and death

    is it possible that your expectation got in your way??

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Finchercooldrinker,

    It’s entirely possible my expectations were too high. I also loved FORREST GUMP and am a huge fan of pretty much all the major players in BUTTON, behind and in front of the camera.

    But I’d like to think the greatest movies can still deliver no matter how high our expectations. My hopes for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK were ridiculously high after STAR WARS and EMPIRE still blew my mind.

    In the end, it’s just my opinion and I’m sure there will be many about this film.

  • D.J. says:

    You say, “I think the problem for me was the stakes weren’t high enough for Benjamin and there was no sense of urgency throughout most of his life.”

    Have you read Fitzgerald’s short story? I don’t mean to condescend; but, in the short story, Benjamin goes about his life rather like anybody else would. At times he’s annoyed by his condition, like when he wants to go to college (as an 18 year old in a 60 year old’s body). My point is that Button is never trying to resist his fate. And perhaps more importantly, he’s never aware of any stakes.

    The genius of Fitzgerald’s writing in Button, which hopefully Roth carried over into the adaptation (and which I gather he has), is that though Button is able to spend his wisest years in the body of a younger man, death will still overtake him. And, just like everybody else, Benjamin must simply live…

    To expect some sort of higher stakes in this film is to ignore the essence of the short story, and to expect the usual cinematic storytelling technique to carry you through the narrative.

    And if you seem to have a problem in this area, then I imagine that both Roth, Fincher (and the actors) have made a worthy adaptation of the short story.

    Also, once the bizarre notion of reverse aging takes hold in the reader’s imagination when reading Button, the story shifts and becomes more about life cycles not synchronizing (as well as the inherent humor of Benjamin’s predicament). The needs and wants of each character are different, as they are in life generally, but even more so in such an odd situation as Benjamin’s.

    I look forward to seeing the film…

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi DJ,

    No, I haven’t read the short story. I clearly stated this in the review and asked for people who have to enlighten me so I appreciate your writing. I intend to read it this weekend and maybe write a comparison between the story and movie.

    Rogenia also commented above that there’s conflict when Benjamin wants to go to college but in the film, Benjamin never mentions college and never seems annoyed by his condition. If anything, he’s fascinated by it.

    I look forward to your opinion after you see the film. I enjoy a good discussion about movies and don’t expect everyone to agree with me.

  • D. J. says:

    I’m sorry… I didn’t see the parenthesized statement that you hadn’t read the short story.

    Fitzgerald’s short story is a quick and lovely read, and the ending is perhaps one of the best (and most heartbreaking) endings I have ever read, and I read a lot.

    I don’t think the lack of Benjamin going to college in the movie is really important. I only used it to frame Benjamin’s point-of-view so that you could understand that the story isn’t about ‘stakes’. It’s about a person in an absurd situation trying to live his life, and realizing that–though his condition is absurd–he will ultimately die like everyone else. It’s almost like a Samuel Beckett story in a way, but long before Beckett had found his style. Fitzgerald doesn’t exactly delve into Benjamin’s fascination with his condition; but I think Roth and Fincher were wise to pursue that angle because readers and audiences alike deserve it…

    Yes, I can’t wait to watch the film because I can already see (from the trailers) and what you’ve said, that they’ve built on the short story–which was almost an exercise in minimalism if you ask me. It seems that the film will fill in the gaps of Fitzgerald’s story.

    In fact, and without devaluing your opinion of the film, I think you could have benefited from having read the short story before seeing the film. Then you would have realized that the story isn’t about urgency and high stakes, not to belabor the point too much.

    It is about the beauty and terror of existence: The melancholy realization of how fleeting human life is. And it is about a man who is perhaps a bit more aware of his allotted time on this planet because his absurd condition constantly reminds him of it. Yet, he must live…

    Fincher himself nailed it on the head when he said in some interview or another that the story is about death and sadness.

  • popculturenerd says:

    D.J.,

    I respect your eloquent assessment of the story but I purposefully didn’t read it before seeing the movie because I believe the film must stand on its own. If I have to go back to the source material in order to fully understand some things then maybe the adaptation doesn’t work as well as it should. Even Fincher and Pitt said they never read the story so the two things are separate entities.

    And I reviewed only the movie, not the story. I’ve heard from many people that the story is brilliant. If so, it will remain that way no matter what Roth, Fincher and company did to it. My opinion is only that the movie falls short of that standard.

  • D. J. says:

    I would agree that the film should stand on its own. And I have yet to see it myself.

    However, having read the story, the complaints you have with the film are complaints that you would also likely have with the story (and that story is still considered brilliant). And I’m merely saying that it sounds to me and looks as if the spirit of the short story was preserved in the film. But, again, I have to see it first…

    It’s all a matter of perception anyway. We as cinema-goers sometimes expect stories to unfold a certain way, along these long established conventions. And when they don’t, we take pause. Why?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate here when I wonder, and with great respect (only to make everyone think), if there is a failure, perhaps it isn’t the fault of the filmmakers’.

    We’ll see.

  • popculturenerd says:

    D.J.,

    When a movie doesn’t work, I believe it’s never entirely one party’s fault. Viewers bring different life experiences to a film so there’s no way a filmmaker can please everyone.

    I think the term “failure” is subjective. I saw Charlie Kaufman speak a couple months ago about SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and someone said she was completely confused by his film. He gleefully said, “Then I’ve done my job!” He believes his movie is a success if he has managed to completely befuddle his audience.

    Interestingly, I didn’t understand everything about that movie but was still moved by it in a visceral way. My brain just stopped trying to make sense of things so all my reactions were emotional. SYNECDOCHE is one unconventional film but it still fascinated and moved me and I’m not sure why. I also loved MEMENTO even though the storytelling was far from traditional.

    I don’t think there’s ever a wrong or right reaction to an artistic creation—we can like it or not but it’s all valid, whatever our reasons.

  • DJ says:

    “When a movie doesn’t work, I believe it’s never entirely one party’s fault.”

    I think that was implicit in my responses. So, I agree.

    “Viewers bring different life experiences to a film so there’s no way a filmmaker can please everyone.”

    I totally agree! However, I think that criticism written before a film’s release tends to color one’s reading of the film before they even have a chance to see it. So the critic has to be careful. Some people will go in concentrating on what you say (I’m a music critic myself, and I probably turn people away from music they otherwise would have liked). But, what I’m simply suggesting is that conventional narrative expectations should take a backseat knowing what I know of the story. But, in itself, is an opinion colored by my own point-of-view.

    SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK was magnificent cinema in my opinion, and it was precisely BECAUSE it functions well as an absurdist/surrealist film. It doesn’t observe traditional rules of cinema (although I do love films that are more traditional, too). I daresay BUTTON as a story is slightly surreal. It is unflinchingly absurd and almost a precursor in a way to magical realism.

  • ARB says:

    I was so looking forward to seeing this movie, then I read your review and I was kinda bummed. You don’t slam it, but you don’t praise it like I thought everyone would be doing. Finally, I went back and re-read the short story. Still haven’t seen the film yet (I think it’s slated for a Christmas release, right?), but you don’t mention much of what I loved about the short story. Sounds like they decided not to be faithful to the original story. Have you read it yet?

  • popculturenerd says:

    ARB,

    I just read the story and did a comparison here. I had to delve into plot points to compare the two so don’t read it if you don’t want to know too much. My conclusion was the movie bears very little resemblance to the story so it should be judged on its own merits.

  • Tom E. Orr says:

    I hope that in your review of “Doubt” (yet to be written), you will be fair to Meryl Streep. I believe she is among a very few actors who are courageous in their choices. I sometimes feel that reviewers use criteria for Ms Streep that are unfair to her and her efforts … as if to bring her down rather than elevate her as one who is always attempting to reach the summit of her craft/art. I think it is time again reward her for her efforts

  • D. J. says:

    ARB,

    Don’t be bummed. Go and see it for yourself and put the rest out of your mind.

    Some of my favorite movies are ones that didn’t receive unanimously glowing reviews (i.e., Synechodche, New York).

    You’ve read the short story, so you know its about 23 pages long, depending on the font and paper size. If it were a completely faithful adaptation, the film would be no longer than a half hour–tops. Events move rapidly in the story. So Roth, in making a feature film adaptation, had to first of all expand it.

    And I’ve read that he kept the characters names and Button’s condition, but sort of wrote his own version of the story. Which is fine by me. Roth knows his way around material and is very literary (probably the most literary of all major screenwriters). In one of my other posts, I mentioned that the story is about a man who has to live even though his condition is absurd. Today I read an interview with Roth in which he said that, yes, Benjamin ages backwards but life is still rather the same.

    Fitzgerald’s themes were life, death, melancholy, finding your place in the world, etc. It seems to me that Roth has maintained these themes from reading interviews with Fincher, Pitt and Roth himself.

  • heather says:

    did you see the whore house scene? i am the girl who says he is not for me, and turns him down. what did you think of my performance?
    kisses

  • popculturenerd says:

    Hi Heather,

    I remember you from that scene! Your line got a laugh from the audience so well done.

  • RC says:

    I just saw the film in a New York screening, and it is inert. For a film that lasts for three hours it is surprising how little dramatic resonace there is to the experience. There is more wit and wisdom in the Fitzgerald short story than in any frame of this frame. The Pitt character in a Fitzgeraldian college would be a great scene that scripter Roth never pursued. Pitt is never really tested. He is more of a lump than a Gump.

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