Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Lacks Heart

"It's missing something elemental."


Two of the three people who walked out of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button really enjoyed it. Sadly, I was that third person, the one that found it dull and overly conceptual -- missing a chance to do something meaningful at every turn. Does this mean I'm right? Does it mean you should skip Benjamin Button and its near three-hour running time? I suppose it depends on your tastes. This is definitely an artsy film (though more in terms of concept than in how it's actualized), but it's a good chance to see attractive folks act well too. However, I think it's missing something elemental. What exactly? Let's take the journey together.

Brad Pitt plays the title character, Benjamin Button, a man who ages in reverse (as the trailers have indicated). This is an extremely clever concept, no doubt about it. He starts as a little old baby when the story begins, and folks weave in and out of his life as he ages and grows backwards. So far, so good. There's definitely enough meat on that bone to make something for the ages. Rarely does a studio film start with as much going for it as Button does. Besides Pitt there's Oscar darling Cate Blanchett. She's joined by all-star Tilda Swinton, plus the movie is directed by David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac). In fact, if you told me I had to give the movie a grade without seeing it, knowing only who put it together, I'd probably just throw it an "A" and call it good.

Where The Curious Case of Benjamin Button goes wrong is with its overall lack of punch. There simply isn't much going on throughout. In fact, it seems like Fincher has gone to great pains to make the whole "aging backwards" thing ordinary and relevant to our own lives. Only that method makes the film slow and tedious -- if we're not to be amazed by the fantastic, if Pitt's Button really is just some schmoe with the same problems as us ... then why bother with the storytelling device at all? Button is damaged by its very severe need to be an Oscar nominated film. The music swells at the appropriate places, the characters exchange meaningful glances throughout, but none of it feels earned. Button fails with the fantastic in a way that a film like The Green Mile doesn't. Benjamin Button never takes the chance to amaze you with anything besides the initial concept, and so all the solid character work never really adds up to anything.

That said, this film will definitely resonate with some movie-goers. It is shot well, it does have lovely acting, and it certainly has life lessons to impart. I think this film versus Revolutionary Road is a bit like the American Beauty versus Magnolia debate of 1999. My group of friends and I vehemently favored one over the other with little common ground between the two. It comes down to personal taste, I suppose. (For the record, I was on the side of Magnolia then, though I find myself in Mendes' corner this time around.)

See Benjamin Button. Why not? It's still better than most movies in the world. If you don't love it you can come back later and take refuge in a spot that agrees with you. And if you do love it you can come back and tell me that I'm a fool. I'll accept that sort of passionate discourse. In my opinion that's a far better deal than the movie itself will give you ... because it's got no heart.

Grade: B-