The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Award season has now kicked into high gear. Six films opened in town on Christmas; four of them will probably figure in one Oscar race or another, and I really want to see the other two. Unfortunately, even with the long holiday weekend, I’ll only be able to get to two or three. And furthermore, there is, I’m sorry to say, little likelihood that I’ll be able to give every one of them a full review. So there is a capsule review column coming up in the near future.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I will refer to from here on as Button, is a prime example of Award season fare. You see, there comes a time in the life of every pretty boy Hollywood star when he feels the need to prove that his success is based on more than just his wavy blond hair and boyish smile. Those twenty million dollar paychecks are are justified by his acting chops. This, perhaps, is not fair to Brad Pitt, who has done good work in a fair number of intelligent films, but that doesn’t change the fact that Button is a calculated attempt to get him an Oscar nomination. And it will probably work.  Button has everything going for it. It is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, giving it a literary pedigree. It is an extremely long epic that spans most of the twentieth century, providing gravitas. It requires Pitt to play his character at various ages, which always impresses voters. And it is a sweeping romantic story, which will make money because it has Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in it. Button is just the sort of middle brow fare that they created the Oscars to honor.

In brief, Button is the life story of Benjamin Button, who is born in New Orleans on the day World War I ends, as an old man and who grows younger until he dies as an infant. His mother died in childbirth and his father, horrified at the grotesque looking baby, abandons Benjamin on the steps of an old age home run by Queenie, played by Tariji P. Henson, a strong willed black woman. She adopts Benjamin, thinking that he won’t survive. A few years later, when Benjamin still appears to be an old man using a cane, he meets the love of his life, seven year old Daisy, played very well at this point by Elle Fanning. As the years go by these two connect and lose each other several times, finally getting married in the early years of the sixties, when their ages and physical appearances match, Cate Blanchett, having taken over the role by this point.

Button is a beautifully photographed film, capturing its various settings and times in minute detail, and yet not drawing attention away from the story or the performances. The other technical elements are the same. In the sixties portion of the story, for example, the fashions are definitely of the period but are not of the more flamboyant or cliche types. There are no mini skirts or bell bottoms. It is a tasteful film.

The main problem with the film is the character of Benjamin Button. He is too passive. This is because he is meant to be a witness to the twentieth century and it all sort of happens to him. He’s a little more proactive in the romance part of the story, but even there, he’s far too accepting. When he goes to New York to sweep her off her feet and she already has a boyfriend, he just melts away and passively waits for another chance. Considering that he must have known that they would only have a short span of years before their peculiar situation would tear them apart, you’d think he’d be more assertive. Pitt does a fine job but this role is not the challenge that you would assume it is.

Cate Blanchett’s Daisy on the other hand is very impressive. She grows from pretentious young lady, to embittered wife, to content middle age, to compassionate old woman. Each aspect builds believably on the preceding one and the final ediface is believable and a joy to watch. Cate Blanchett is monumentally talented and we are lucky to live in her era.

The supporting performances are universally excellent as well. Tariji P. Henson shines as Queenie, playing her at various ages as well. Jared Harris steals many a scene as Captain Mike, a larger than life tugboat captain. And the great Tilda Swinton shines as Elizabeth Abbot the restless wife of a British diplomat in Murmansk.

Make no mistake, Button is a manipulative and overly sentimental film. In the end though, it won me over and the nearly three hour length passed almost unnoticed. The end is moving as well.

My guess is that it will do well in the award season.


5 Responses to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

  1. 1 Mark Anderson December 27, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    Doesn’t this review put the cart before the horse? Very likely Brad Pitt wants to be taken seriously for his skills. No doubt the people who signed off on how the money was spent thought that Oscar nominations would improve their return on investment. But on a film that cost as much as this one, those concerns must have been peripheral to the one that the review mentions almost as an afterthought — “it will make money”. Wasn’t Brad Pitt just an employee (albeit an important one) in this project, rather than the guiding force that the review portrays him to be?

    Incidentally, the full text of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story is online at The film must take considerable liberties with Fitzgerald’s plot, since the short story starts in 1860 and ends about 1925, while I gather the film is still going strong as it enters the 1960’s.

  2. 2 Five Dollar Sodas December 27, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    The thing that most bothers me about button is the lack of a real thematic destination. I feel like the film raises important themes but doesn’t manage to connect them in a coherent fashion. I left the theater feeling frustrated that this movie is going to get so much oscar buzz when it really isn’t a first tier film. Maybe it’s been a weak movie year, but I really don’t think Button belongs in the same conversation as Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, Synecdoche NY, or even Slumdog Millionaire.

    I dig your blog, check out my button review if you have a second.

  3. 3 The Other Ebert December 30, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    You’re right. I haven’t read much concerning how this film got made so I don’t know for sure if it’s an attempt to get Pitt an Oscar nomination. But the evidence in front of my eyes tells me that it must be. The film is so calculated you can almost check their math. I can’t help but believe that the director, David Fincher, who is a very good filmmaker, would have let this project get so bloated and sentimental if he weren’t under orders to make an award winning epic. You are also underestimating how star driven the movie industry is. To a Paramount executive the world is a better place if it has a happy Brad Pitt in it. If they are the studio that finances the film that gets him nominated for an Oscar, then he may want to continue his association with them. In fact, they may be able to talk him into making an action or sci fi tentpole picture, or maybe get him to be in a family film that will make a ton of money. Button only made 39 million over the weekend, which put it in third place. That figure doesn’t even make a dent in the 150 million dollar budget, but Paramount will take it because Button will be a player in the Oscar race. This time of year the gold of Oscar is just as important as the green of money.

  4. 4 The Other Ebert December 30, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. I did check out your blog and really liked it. It seems we’re trying to do the same sort of thing. I also really like your header. I need to explore my options on the dashboard to see if I can do better visually. I think we’re pretty close in our assessment of the film. Brad Pitt’s performance didn’t impress me as much but that was a function of the character’s maddening passivity. And I think your observation about the themes is spot on. There are several interesting things going on, including stuff about missed opportunities and second chances, but none of it really goes anywhere. Thanks again.

  5. 5 coffee January 17, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    i was pleasantly surprised to find out that Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story upon which Benjamin Button (the movie) was based

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