David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Eric Roth’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a stirring epic. It is articulate in its craftsmanship, and it is technically brilliant. It is also, I’m afraid, rather dull. After its overlong 160 minutes conclude, you’re more likely to recall Pitt’s Meet Joe Black than Fincher’s Zodiac. This universal epic about a man aging backwards, is more than a mixed bag or a bad experience; it’s a missed opportunity. I will say right now, and it pains me to do so, this is not the film everyone wanted it to be. It might be the film some wanted it to be, but the film that it is, is a safe and shallow bet. Benjamin Button takes a potentially scarring and jarring subject – mortality – and makes it a pedestrian Hallmark card.
For starters, it’s a one-gimmick movie. And, 160 minutes is a long time to invest in one gimmick. Every scene, every relationship, and every conflict springs from the fact that Pitt’s Benjamin Button ages from a baby in an elderly body, to an elderly man in baby’s skin. The road from point A to point B is nothing new. It’s Zelig, it’s Forrest Gump, it’s Being There. Only, it lacks the humor or humanity of any of those films, and their lead characters. Which isn’t to say that Pitt isn’t dynamo with the lackluster material. In fact, I would not be surprised if a good, ol’ fashioned Academy campaign doesn’t give him a stronger chance for an Oscar than he’s ever had before. It’s a mammoth performance, which required much time and pain and patience from the talented actor. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t rise to a similar occasion.
The same is true for the entire crew, except for Fincher and Roth. They are both talented, they both know how to handle epic storylines. What went wrong? Some of the riskiest film artists today, don’t take nearly as many risks as they should. For some reason, Fincher and Roth came together and made a generational saga that plays like a made-for-TV movie. This isn’t the gutsy visual world of Zodiac or Seven and this isn’t the same kind of airtight screenplay as The Insider or Ali. After the “wow” factor of the elderly Benjamin Button wears off, the film doesn’t have much going for it. It then becomes various actors in old-face, riffing on dialogue and events that aren’t anything new or unusual. So much for a fantasy. Cate Blanchett, as Button’s star-crossed lover Daisy, is also quite good. And, you feel even more sympathy for the actress as she’s left to babysit a meandering narrative.
An experience this slight, and occasionally hollow, shouldn’t cost $150 million and last nearly three hours. You walk out of Benjamin Button, right back where you started. As it’s never happened for the director, Fincher is due his massive critical/commercial triumph. It ain’t here. This is a film about time, and isn’t likely to become timeless.