David Fincher and Brad Pitt have notably collaborated before, bringing Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club to the big screen, creating an icon of modern cinema in the process. It would then stand to reason that an adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story would result in a better film — say what you will about Palahniuk, but he is not F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is more of an exercise in the curiosity of spending millions of dollars — and the time of a talented director — to create a film that falls somewhere south of inspiring interest or emotional response from its audience.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” follows the titular character, played competently by Pitt, as he ages backward — he is born as an old man — and lives a somewhat interesting life in the quest for true love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Along the way, he adventures from the 1920s through the late 20th century alongside a motley cast of characters, including a headmistress of an old folks’ home (Tajani Henson), a sea captain (Jared Harris) and an older woman who also happens to be the wife of a spy (Tilda Swinton).
At two hours and 40 minutes, the movie is a long one, and the small narrative episodes seem almost disposable due to the picaresque structure of the plot. There is no discernable reason for the affair with the older woman, other than a dogged attention to the original short story, but in this case, that attention is for naught, as that episode serves no identifiable purpose other than to make us slightly late for whatever it is we’re doing after the movie.
The main problem wiath “Button” is its length and its structure. It’s all well and good to attempt a picaresque in film — “Forrest Gump” did so semi-successfully and even won an Oscar for its trouble — but aiming for this a film that so clearly needs editing is a recipe for disaster. The movie clearly does need to be a bildungsroman if it even hopes to do the tiniest bit of justice to the source material, but Fincher is in drastic need of a strong willed editor and a tighter editorial vision for the film if he wants us to sit through it without checking our watches.
“Button” shares a screenwriter (Eric Roth) with “Gump,” and that relationship is evident in the dialogue and structure of the film — I half expected Tom Hanks to pop out and start blabbering about boxes of chocolate. He wouldn’t have seemed out of place either: Much of the script’s dialogue has the weird cutesy-folksiness that was so identifiable in “Gump,” which is a style that lends itself to dramatic statements about the nature of life and sweeping stories of human triumph and tragedy.
“Button” falls somewhat short in inspiring emotion and as standing up as a sweeping tale of human triumph, as Benjamin doesn’t seem to live a very curious life other than the fact that he ages in reverse. This leads to a final scene that should be filled with pathos but instead seems more like the inevitable and logical conclusion to his condition. We know what’s coming, but Fincher fails to conjure up any identification more than, “Wow, that must really suck to be aging in reverse… When is this movie over again?”
“Button” is in some respects asking the impossible of its creators — to make us sympathize and empathize with someone that lives a life so identifiably different from our own. However, the movie fails so completely at providing depth and dimension to Benjamin that it is roughly equivalent to watching an amazingly reverse-aged piece of wood walk through New Orleans and pine after Cate Blanchett. Also, the framing device of Hurricane Katrina is the worst kind of cheap attempt at emotional manipulation, and whoever thought of it needs a new brain. If you’re wondering what to do if you have three hours and $10 to burn, go see “Button.” If not, don’t.