Quantcast
subscriber help

artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (review)

Only Young Twice

So it’s just like this crazy life thing, you know? You’re born, you do some stuff, maybe if you’re lucky you fall in love with the same person who falls in love with you — at the same time that person falls in love with you — and then you die. Kind of not really a big deal, really, same as everybody else, except that it’s all we get. And you hear all those things about youth being wasted on the young and how we’re only young once and Bob Dylan being so much older than that then, he’s younger than that now, and you think, Yeah, I guess it’s true, but whatever, cuz, shit, my back is killing me today and no amount of going barefoot and eating ice cream is gonna change that.
And then here’s this guy, Benjamin Button, who’s born old, like one of those little-old-man babies. You know the kind I’m talking about, the ones with no baby fat and big bald heads and you look at them and you think, Damn, kid, you look just like a little old eight-pound man in a diaper. Except Benjamin really is old, even though he’s newborn, like one of those poor kids who get free trips to Disneyland because they have that weird disease that makes them like 85 by the time they’re in first grade. There’s no free trips to Disneyland for Benjamin, though, cuz he was born in 1918, before there was a Disneyland, and before there was an Oprah to tell him on TV how brave he is, and before there were medical correspondents on cable news to point out sadly that he’s a freak, so he just grows up pretty normal in a New Orleans nursing home, where he was adopted by the not-elderly woman who runs the place after being abandoned for being an actual little-old-man baby.

He can’t walk much at first due to the arthritis and stuff, but as he gets older he gets younger and his arthritis ain’t so bad anymore and he can start toddling around, and it’s almost exactly like how little kids gotta learn to walk, too, don’t they? And as his senility retreats as he gets older/younger, he can start to think and talk and feed himself, and it’s like: Hey, this is kinda cool, how life is life no matter which way you live it. And by the time he’s young enough for, you know, his arteries and hormones to work together so that he can get a boner, he’s old enough to be interested in girls. Come on, you were wondering about that. It’s actually kind of pertinent too, because how people treat the old/young Benjamin and later the young/old Benjamin says a lot about how we approach people based on their age that may not be fair to them.

This is three hours of stuff, this Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and as it toodled along in the middle, I did start to wonder if it was going to be anything more than that: just life, lived backwards but pretty much the same as being lived forward. Benjamin sees the Great Depression and he sees World War II and he sees the space race and he sees the freewheeling 1960s and it’s a teensy bit Forrest Gumpish — old is as old does, I guess. Benjamin meets Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton) and has an affair with her, and then he falls in love with Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), whom he’s known since they were kids, since he was old and she was young, and then in the middle they meet at the same age and have a nice romance. That’s when I thought: Okay, but is that it?

Kinda like how life feels sometimes: This is it?

Well, it is it, and it isn’t. There comes a moment when everything clicks quietly into place, and you realize, Ah, I’m gonna sob my eyes out at the end of this, aren’t I?

And you will. Well, I did, anyway.

Cuz what happens is, after an hour and a half of an impressively realized but still rather bizarre amalgam of Brad Pitt’s (Burn After Reading, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), artificially wizened face CGIed onto small actors’ bodies — the FX miracle that creates the old/young Benjamin in a way that also captures Pitt’s beautiful performance is amazing — there comes that inevitable moment when, for the first time, and for only a brief time, we get the real, unadulterated, actual Brad Pitt as he is in 2008 onscreen. Now, I’m not one of those crazy Brad Pitt girls: I think he’s a fine actor, and getting better all the time, but he doesn’t make me swoon or anything. So when I saw I swooned at that moment, it’s not because, you know, he’s Brad Pitt, but because that was the moment when this film slapped me across the face: He’s getting younger, and that’s not fair, when we all have to get older. We’re only young once, they tell us, but Benjamin gets to be young twice. And yet, he is made lonely in his strange old age, so we can hardly envy him.

It’s very strange, and very moving. The film becomes a lovely elegy to both youth and age, to the fleeting ephemeralness of, you know, everything: love, friendship, wisdom. And the sureness of them, too.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Nick

    I think you captured the essence of this film perfectly in your review MJ, it’s exactly as the title says it and your writing implies…curious. I had a chance to catch this film last night and I found myself asking the same questions you did throughout…is this it? And I think Fincher makes a great point of underplaying many of the questions that we would like answered by such a curious situation as backwards ageing to say to our question, yup this is it.

    Our society has become obsessed with preserving age and viewing the effects of ageing as such a negative, almost disgusting process. So when Daisy, who epitomizes this desire for youth, tells Benjamin how lucky he is and how much she envies him, we all are doing the same. But I think once Benjamin’s life runs its course and we see the effects of reverse ageing being so similar to our own ageing, it empties us of that envy.

    That’s why I think the film finds it’s most beautiful moments both visually and in its characters when Pitt is playing his actual age, and both he and Daisy and their relationship are fully realized. It has a strange essence to it that captures the nature of our longing for fulfillment that is, in many cases, fleeting at best. I couldn’t help but think of a quote that I really like from Camus when I was watching this part of the film

    “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

    Benjamin’s life really is no different from our own, the process is just a little mixed up. We really have the same problems and opportunities to enjoy the limited time we have, and his character shows us one more reason why we should all be thankful for every minute we are alive.

  • Chris

    Ok, so in a whole review you do not once mention the director of the movie (David Fincher) who basically held this very thin story together with his visuals and use of a great score. Cate Blanchett gets one sentence and no real mention of her work, just that she plays the Pitt love interest. Jared Harris who killed in support also gets no mention nor Thomas Fleyming. And finally you provide the greatest mistake of all, you do not mention the best performance of the movie, Taraji P. Henson who’s views, job and teachings shape Benjamin as he becomes a younger man. Henson’s character is the one who steals the movie. You reviewed a concept, not the movie. If I hadnt already seen this movie and read the review I would think wait so this movie is about a guy just living his life in reverse? That’s it? Nothing special? Just “three hours of stuff”?

  • Newbia

    In response to Chris: it really was just “three hours of stuff”. The movie had a brilliant and beautiful concept, and that was the only thing great about it. Everything else was just good. What is the point of pointing out what every other reviewer will point out? MaryAnn really did perfectly capture what I liked about this movie and, at the same time, what I felt it was missing.

  • It is a great concept, for sure, but it should really be called The Curious Case of Forrest Gump because this is essentially the same story as that… different frills, different ailments, same message.

    Same characters too.

    It’s not one you’ll ever need to watch again, once the magic of the mesmerizing effects wears off — I mean, everyone was there. Lieutenant Dan, Jenny, Momma with her bits of wisdom: “Life is like a box of chocolates / You never know what life’s gonna throw at you.” etc. Just one rehashed bit after another.

    There was a point when Jenny I mean Daisy arrives at Benjamin’s doorstep and I could hear it in my head, couldn’t you? “But at nighttime, when there was nothing to do and the house was all empty, I’d always think of Jenny… and then, she was there.”

    I’m not gonna lie, there were some great moments in Benjamin Button — some meaty emotional stuff, just like it’s spiritual predecessor, but the only thing stopping this script from being plagiarism is that it’s got the same fucking writer.

  • joey

    “Okay, but is that it?

    Kinda like how life feels sometimes: This is it”

    MaryAnn, I’m wondering, since you’re such an outspoken atheist, if this kind of helps you to understand on an emotional level why we have religion, because to me it comes from that, this longing that it not be “it”. (Which might actually be part of the point of the quote in the previous comment, but I don’t recall the context).

  • MaryAnn, I’m wondering, since you’re such an outspoken atheist, if this kind of helps you to understand on an emotional level why we have religion, because to me it comes from that, this longing that it not be “it”.

    I certainly don’t speak for MaryAnn, but understanding the emotional need for religion isn’t the issue — it’s not a hard one to identify with after all; we all fear death on some level. Some folks just don’t think it’s appropriate to comfort themselves with a delusion… or even that it’s a comfort at all.

    Regardless of your personal religious views, explaining them based on a primal emotional need is an intellectual cheat; it’s dishonest and it robs life of its fundamental power: the ridiculous absurdity of everything. If nothing we do has a purpose or a reason, that whatever we do is important only insofar as we deem it so… which is either even more absurd or pleasantly efficacious, depending on your own particular……. idiom, sir? Yes. Idiom.

    And anyway, as the sagely bounty hunter said: “we’re all just floating”. But if you gotta run from that knowledge, religion is as good a place as any I suppose.

    If you gotta run.

  • I loved this movie, though I had some problems around the ending. I think it has a strong chance to take the Best Picture Oscar, and while I expect Brad Pitt to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, I think he’ll lose to Sean Penn.

    It is a beautifully-made movie, and I agree with the folks uptopic who complained about the lack of praise for the supporting cast, which was uniformly excellent.

    Yes, there are some structural and detail similarities to Forrest Gump (the humingbird? Oh please!). However, in Benjamin Button, you had a painfully self-aware character at the core, unlike Forrest Gump where the main character was completely clueless (kinda like…oh, never mind). And the way he “grew young” during childhood and adolescence was brilliantly handled.

  • JoshB

    Okay, but is that it?

    This is what I was thinking almost the whole movie long. I was bored midway through and impatiently checking my watch by the end.

    It’s a cliche to say that a movie has no story or plot, but in this case that’s my criticism in a nutshell. There was no beginning, middle, or end, no purpose, nothing that the narrative was driving towards. It’s just a bunch of anecdotes, some more interesting than others, most of them unrelated to each other except that they were lived by the same person. It was at the midpoint, somewhere after the WWII sequences, that I realized that the movie was only going to end when the writer decided he had run out of anecdotes to tell.

    That said, the cast is uniformly blameless. Especially Taraji P. Henson, who stole every scene she was in.

  • Yes, there are some structural and detail similarities to Forrest Gump (the humingbird? Oh please!). However, in Benjamin Button, you had a painfully self-aware character at the core, unlike Forrest Gump where the main character was completely clueless (kinda like…oh, never mind). And the way he “grew young” during childhood and adolescence was brilliantly handled.

    You’re right, it’s totally different. Forrest had leg braces, Benjamin had those crutches. Also I do not think anyone called them “Magic Legs”… but FULL DISCLOSURE I did fall asleep at one point so I may have missed it. ;)

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, I’m wondering, since you’re such an outspoken atheist, if this kind of helps you to understand on an emotional level why we have religion

    Thanks for not presuming to speak for me, Newbs, but I agree with you completely.

    What makes you think, joey, that I don’t understand the emotional basis for religion? Is that what you think makes someone an atheist, that he or she doesn’t understand why other people believe?

    And no, I didn’t mention the director — obviously, you all already know who directed the film, so does that really matter? — or most of the supporting cast. They were, indeed, all very fine. But what I wrote here, this is what I feel about the movie. This is what I *always* do. I never mention every aspect of a movie, and I don’t see the point of shoehorning in something that doesn’t work in the overall review.

  • Lilly S

    that’s it? and no middle, no beginning, no end? that IS just like life…and no purpose, either. I think I will pass on the seeing the movie. I am not getting any younger…and three hours is very precious.

  • Drave

    I saw this last night, and it absolutely blew me away, but very subtly. A very matter-of-fact presentation of life, seen from a slightly different angle, letting the familiar light reflect off the facets in unexpected ways. One of the most affecting movies I have ever seen, but it really sneaks up on you with a gradual build-up until you experience that oh-so-rare movie feeling that I can only describe as a cross between an orgasm and getting punched in the stomach. I had tears streaming down my face by the end of it. When I walked outside of the theater, my first sight was of a poster for Race to Witch Mountain. To see something so mundane after an experience so powerful actually made me angry. It was like the opposite of being born, which I suppose is appropriate.

  • To see something so mundane after an experience so powerful actually made me angry.

    I had this same experience after seeing American Beauty at the mall and being confronted with a shitty chain sub sandwich kiosk as I exited the theater.

  • lois

    I really believe this movie offers the greatest lesson for the young but will have the deepest impact on people of middle age or older because they are able to understand what it feel like to feel life slipping away. I walked out of the movie deeply affected by the fact that my life is half over and like Benjamin in the film, life passes you by so quickly that you have to relish every moment you are given. Benjamin understands this because he in some ways is given the gift of starting life at the end.
    Most every critic I’ve read misses bigger messages in the film – like how we treat our elderly. They are relegated to nursing homes and considered unappealing to care for (by most) though they are as needy and in need of love as any infant (those gerber babies our society fawns over). The care that Daisy gives Benjamin at the end of the film when he is an infant is sadly reminicent of the type of care the elderly require at the end of their lives. Or curiously how Queenie needs to care for Benjamin at the start of the film.
    I also think critics miss the early message in the film about children born with birth defects and handicaps and the potential that exists if they are nutured and loved. It saddened me to hear about the woman who recently murdered her austic child in light of how Queenie in the film takes Benjamin and all his frailities and ugliness and loves him without question.
    And sorry, if you have ever been in love, the scenes with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are wonderful.
    Lastly, I love the lightening strikes :)

  • darryl

    ok, so i havent seen the movie yet and was looking over reviews to see if id like it, and in this, i generally read the flick philosopher–not because i agree with the commentary, but we have similar digestive tastes. what can pass through one, seems to pass through the other even if what is absorbed is quite different.

    and now i get it. similar digestive tracks, antipodal perspectives of life.

    happy newyear.

  • Barbara

    Thanks for writing a review that helps me understand and explain how and why this movie appealed to me so much emotionally, although so many reviewers wrote that it lacked an emotional centre. As a middle-aged woman, I also felt the bittersweetness of life passsing by, what has been lost and gained. Like Maryann, I have never been a huge fan of Brad Pitt, but his beauty is used to great effect here in the scene where his prime self in “unveiled”.

  • I am astounded that nowhere in this review or the comments that follow do the words “New Orleans” appear. Perhaps the whole “location as character” thing doesn’t seem as obvious to people who aren’t from the area, but I grew up about an hour from the Crescent City, and this movie took my breath away at so many points just by honestly reflecting the territory. Indeed, even the Katrina framing device was a piece of genius.

    I watched this last night, and I am eager to proselytize about it to everyone I meet.

  • MaryAnn

    I also think critics miss the early message

    Just because we critics don’t mention something in a review doesn’t mean we missed it…

  • Julie Smith-Hoff

    The movie runs for 2 hours and 47 minutes. At two hours, I was praying for food poisoning from the popcorn and my husband had adjourned to the men’s room for the third time. Since we have an ironclad “we buy tickee, we see movie” rule, we gutted it out. What I don’t understand is why we were both weeping uncontrollably at the end. I mean sucking-air/mascara-dripping sobbing. The movie was way too long for the story; Brad Pitt is the most overrated actor since Russell Crowe; and our- favorite character (Queenie) had died already. Were we manipulated? Are we nuts? I’ve never had a cinematic sucker punch like that before. Also, I never write movie opinions so forgive me if this sounds, you know, trite and stupid.

  • Chris

    Mary Ann, I’m not saying you have to mention every single aspect of the film, but to not give some credit to people not named Pitt would be nice. Pitt probably was the third best character in the movie behind Queenie and Captain Mike. In the number of movies that I have seen you attack a charcter for being to crude, it would have been nice to see your thoughts on some characters that are not of that mold and obviously have a profound effect on the main character. From Queenie’s life lessons, to Captain Mike’s need for creativity and desire for women, to Thomas Button’s way of connecting with Benjamin, it would have been nice to hear something about them at some point in the review. You focus only on the fact that yes we all pretty much go through the same motions, but what you leave out is the effect that others have on us.

    That said my own observation of the film is that Fincher did a brillaint job of using the decades and the tone of the times to show the changing in Benajmin’s age, his responsiblities and his need to discover and explore.

  • MaryAnn

    You’re not wrong about any of those things, Chris, but they are not the primary things that come to mind when I think about this film.

  • Kate

    One thing about the review confuses me — in the film (as opposed to the Fitzgerald story on which it was based), Benjamin’s BODY is the only thing that “youthens.” The review seems to see him as born old (in body and mind) and then growing younger (in body and mind). That’s cleary not the way the story was filmed. When he is born, Benjamin is a baby/child trapped in an old man’s frail and sick body. When he dies, he’s an old man trapped in a child/baby’s body. At the end of his life he has Altzimers! This minimzes any real “point” to the film, since Benjamin really ages the same as the rest of us do — he just doesn’t LOOK the way the rest of us do.

    I honestly didn’t think much of the film — it was all pretty much Forrest Gump in a different package (and I agree with Newbs that ALL of the Gumpian characters are there, along with the Gumpian message (instead of a feather, we get a humingbird this time!). The fact that the same guy wrote both films pretty much sums it up. The big difference (and the reason this film isn’t anywhere near as good as Gump) is that Benjamin never really participates in the life he passes through — he seems detached, disconnected, unaffected (case in point, he spends the war having tea). And the decision he makes near the end (a decision Forrest Gump would never have made) undermines my ability to sympathize with him. He minimalizes his true humanity by putting too much importance on physical appearance.

    As for the Katrina framing device, I found it annoying and manipulative. The “old woman as narrator” thing conjured up memories of Titanic, and the “truth revealed through a notebook” swcuxw was so Bridges of Madison County. As for Katrina, I kept waiting for a REASON for having it in the film, but aside from a nice watery clock shot at the end there was no reason.

    This film IS worth watching, and there are some lovely scenes (and some very nice performances). All together it just doesn’t amount to much. Maybe that’s the point, but it just doesn’t seem like enough.

  • JasonJ

    My wife and I saw this film yesterday. We did enjoy it, even if there was a smidge of Forrest Gump-osity to it. And yes, the lightning strikes were awesome…

  • Henry

    I don’t really get the Forrest Gump comparisons. I disagree so completely I’m not even sure how to argue with it. Yes, both characters are southern, and both have mothers, but that’s about where the similarities end. Laura D.T. Mann is right that while Forrest was simple and oblivious, Benjamin is complex and intensely self-aware. Forrest Gump is about accidentally leaving legacies; Benjamin Button is about consciously satisfying ourselves with transience. Weirdly, I think both films ring true.

    Also, I thought Cate Blanchett was outstanding. I hope she is nominated for an Oscar.

  • Laura

    “This minimzes any real “point” to the film, since Benjamin really ages the same as the rest of us do — he just doesn’t LOOK the way the rest of us do.”

    I saw the movie last night and I thought it was a work of art. I must applaud the entire crew, the director and the story writer. The story is brilliant! It is more than just facts! It’s a metaphor of life! A complex concept presented in a common “language”: images of our everyday life! All those revelations made in some of these reviews – which I very much enjoyed- could be boring at reading (no offense guys but I don’t think many people nowadays would read a book about how we treat the elderly or the sick and so on), but the movie feeds you ideas, and raises questions in your own life with images and emotions. This is the beauty of art!

    To answer to Kate’s remark now: what you see and what you are told in the movie are two messages (one is “young”, the other is “old” and vice versa), but you have to understand to treat them equally.
    In the beginning you SEE an old man, but you KNOW he’s a young soul. How did you feel about him as a baby? Would you take care of him just as Queenie did? The question is how does the old need to be treated? And the answer is: just like the young! I’ll give an example to how that relates to our everyday lives: my grandma (and I’m sure you will find different aspects but similar in meaning in yours grandmas) The older she grows the more she resembles a child. Now, she prefers candy, chocolate and cakes to food. She would rather receive a doll to put on her shelf than clothing or cosmetics. She collects little statues, either religious or not, dolls she considers they resemble me and my sister.Every time I go home to her she calls me in her room to show me her collection, her new “toys”… Old people need and ask in their own ways for the same kind of attention kids do!

    In the end you KNOW Benjamin is old and has Alzheimer. But what do you SEE? You see a mentally retarded child! And again that raises the question how do you treat each? The answer is with the same Love and Dedication you should treat any human.

  • Henry (Fri Jan 09 09, 1:57AM):

    I don’t really get the Forrest Gump comparisons. I disagree so completely I’m not even sure how to argue with it.

    Let’s enumerate some basic similarities…

    Forrest Gump – Benjamin Button
    Jenny – Daisy
    Momma – Queenie
    Lt. Dan – Captain Mike
    Bubba – Mike’s Crew

    These are not quirk-for-quirk translations of course, but the spirit of each of these is quite similar, and they are used for equal purpose in both plot and character.

    For example:
    Momma – “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
    Queenie – “You never know what’s coming for you.”

    Forrest – “But at nighttime . . . I’d always think of Jenny. And then, she was there.” [ENTER JENNY]
    Benjamin – “And one evening, not long after I had been back . . .” [ENTER DAISY]

    Oh, but wait! Benjamin gets to do it twice!

    Benjamin – “And in the spring of 1962 . . . she came back.” [ENTER DAISY]

    And so on and so on. It’s all there. Been regurgitated and mixed around a little, but it’s all there.

    Here’s a nice article that says it much better than I’ve been able to.

  • Oh, and another!

    And I think that’s all I have to say about that.

  • Henry

    Right…but to a certain degree, all characters are derived from archetypes, right? When you have two main characters of the same gender from similar regions coming of age (pun intended, hahahaha…ok sorry, there’s no excuse for that) at about the same time in history, there are bound to be some similarities. However, I think that the way the characters are framed are totally different in the two movies, not just “mixed around a little.”

    Ex:

    Momma – white, middle-class widow, with a sweet, passive disposition.
    Queenie – black, working class single woman with a lover and an attitude (I mean that in a good way)

    Lt. Dan – hates Forrest, then warms to him, finds God, they become bff
    Captain Mike – a repressed “artist” who treats Benjamin just like anybody else right from the beginning, and dies without having undergone any kind of conversion whatsoever

    Bubba – a sort of kindred spirit for Forrest, a ‘bromance’ (though I kind of hate that word)
    ? – Benjamin does get that one guy’s money to his family, but the entire point of this film is that Benjamin has difficulty sustaining relationships because of his backward aging; he has no friends like Bubba

    The Jenny/Daisy thing doesn’t really work either, for the very important reason that Benjamin breaks Daisy’s heart first (which, I could argue, is what leads to her vaguely Jenny-like behavior later on), and has affairs with other women, one meaningful, some not.

    I could go on, but the point is: though the characters fill corresponding roles in the the lives of the two heroes, the characters’ motivations and [substitute a more appropriate word than “essences” here] are wholly different.

    P.S. forgot to mention in my first post: the last three sentences of this review rocked.

  • Truth

    Newbs was obviously not paid to see the film. Hence, he went to see it on his own regard. Why? As with anyone interested in film, they wanted to see Fincher flex his next portfolio project. I know that’s why I went to see it. To see what technical wizardry Fincher would create/expand to visualize an already tested concept.

    If you came away with some emotional attachment to the material, so be it. My fascination with the film derived from trying to see how Fincher constructed each frame with unmatched detail. This is Fincher’s classical epic. As an exercise (in the technical sense) it’s damn near flawless. Cold. Distant. Rehashed material. I’m not concerned with these things when watching any of Fincher’s films. I can’t remember ever wanting to see his films for “substance” since I saw Alien 3 in theaters. Much like Ridley Scott’s and Kubrick’s works, his films are events for people studying the technical craft.

  • Tom

    You had to use your brain in a different way to appreciate this film. Not easy for many critics to do. Also, when Brad Pitt turns into Brad Pitt, it was not just pre-ordained by the story but deeply satisfying and appreciated. Still, not a perfect film, but poetic and occasionally beautiful.

  • Lt. Dan – hates Forrest, then warms to him, finds God, they become bff
    Captain Mike – a repressed “artist” who treats Benjamin just like anybody else right from the beginning, and dies without having undergone any kind of conversion whatsoever

Pin It on Pinterest