There is little else greater to be curious about than life itself. Benjamin Button is a study of life. Director David Fincher uses Button, played by Brad Pitt, to speak of age and how nothing should stop us from achieving what we must. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is, on a surface level, indeed a curious one, but beyond that, there is much to be desired. Brad Pitt is indeed curious, but that is due to his erratic series of casting decisions. He chooses projects that elevate the picture, not himself. Despite all the talent and name-value involved in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there does not seem to be that spark of big-budget magic. Perhaps that is why it is so tiring. Almost as tired and weak as its ancient, decrepit leading man.
Fincher has always been one to craft fluttering emotions, mired by the lack of confidence he has in his own voice. The grainy footage that displays the passing of time and the past is a choice, but not one that inspires much trust in his direction. Elias Koteas offers the respite desired in these early moments, the blind clockmaker who loses his son in the war. He builds a clock for the station, and when it is complete, it ticks backwards. “I made it that way, so maybe the boys that went off to war can stand again”, he says. That line is strong on its own. It cuts through the belief in war at the time and voices Fincher’s appropriate feelings, but it is the performance and blasé that surrounds it which leads to such undesirable effect. Men take their hats down in respect and slowly shuffle out of the room. What is the point of such great effect if its impact, or even lack thereof on these characters, is not shown with grace or style?
It is an issue found throughout The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher has the right message, but the wrong technical merit. He does not display the craft he is adored or commended for. Here, he instead channels the maudlin found within the period piece. Instead of crafting a rich world capable of interest, Fincher instead presents a best-of montage that provides little depth or realism to the working class of the Roaring 20s and subsequent depression. Cutting back and forth between flashbacks of a lengthy nature to the hospital bed Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett) finds herself in, the narrative feels stifled and cuts together with well-intentioned pacing but happenstance occurrences overwhelm any emotional value.
Pitt in particular struggles from time to time. His performance does not, for he is always the charmer in the leading role, but Benjamin Button is not a particularly interesting character. He displays moments that are indeed touching, but they do not really matter. He loses friends, gains some more, and travels away from them all the same. We do too, in the real world, but not at the same rate Button does. His friends are, technically, the same age as him, but he outgrows them not just because he is younger, but because they are shuffling off of the mortal coil. It is as much an adventure through life as it is a drama looking to piece together the life of a man who defied all physical and scientific logic, yet despite all that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button defies few conventions of narrative and technical approach.
“It’s not about what you play. It’s about how you feel while you play”, is one of the many slivers of advice injected into the screenplay. I feel nothing as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button plays. A film that has the clear issue of needing to bait its way into the big books, charming its way through scenes of an empty nature with thickly applied dialogue and a dreary, simple perspective of life. Fincher proclaims that, old or young, we can value the same experiences. The first drink, the family we cultivate and carve out for ourselves. But therein lies the issue. His titular character only appears to be old; he is young and spirited despite his physical appearance. We do not have such luxury as that. We will wither and die, wrinkly and sullen, whereas Button will phase out of existence without so much as a drop of influence, much like the film he finds himself in.