Chances are, you already know if you're going to like The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, the Brad Pitt weepie that opens tomorrow. And in a sense, the movie's predictability is what it's about. Spoilers!!!
Okay, not literally. Literally, Benjamin Button is about a guy who's born old and ages backwards, until he reaches childhood and then dies. But in a larger sense, David Fincher's movie is about deja vu. It feels very much like a dozen other movies you've seen before. And it seems to be saying that familiarity is underrated and nostalgia is renewal, by looking at the life of someone whose past is always in front of him.
In particular, Benjamin Button will remind you a lot of Forrest Gump, another literary adaptation by the same screenwriter, Eric Roth. It's got the same sort of heartwarming, quirky feeling, and the protagonist lives through a nice selection of big historical moments. (Although he doesn't meet any famous personages.) Pretty much every situation that Benjamin Button gets himself into will feel cozily familiar, and most of the characters he meets are ones you've seen before. But because he's living backwards, he outlives people who seem to be his age or younger. And the movie seems to be saying, "Take another look at these familiar situations and archetypes, because they won't last forever, and you'll miss them when they're gone."
Here's the story, in a nutshell: Benjamin Button is born old, and his father abandons him. He's rescued by Queenie, a good-hearted African American woman, who devotes herself to him. Luckily, she works in an old-people's home, where he fits right in with the cast of quirky characters. (One of these characters has a running gag that's jaw-snappingly funny.) He meets a little girl, Daisy, and they become playmates. Later, he goes off to sea on a tugboat, and then fights in World War II. And sleeps with Tilda Swinton. Then he comes home and courts Daisy, who's too busy being a fancy dancer. They finally get together, and are rapturously happy, but Benjamin worries his impending youth will ruin everything. (It does.)
There's also a frame story, where Daisy is on her death bed (as Hurricane Katrina looms) and she gets her daughter to read Benjamin's memoir to her. That stuff is like what I imagine The Notebook would be like.
There's nothing wrong with any of it, and it's all quite skillfully executed. Except that Cate Blanchett, as Daisy, and Brad Pitt, as Benjamin, have very little chemistry, and Pitt's performance in general is somewhere between understated and vacant. (I really only like Pitt when he's doing manic nutjob, to be honest.) But apart from that problem, the performances are all great, and some of them are terrific. Tilda Swinton is never anything but amazing, for example.
The movie is three hours long, and there are a few sequences that feel beyond padded. (In one sequence, in particular, the narrator drones that if A, B, C, or D had happened differently, then E wouldn't have happened. But A, B, C, and D did actually happen the way they did, so E happened as well. I felt like I was being spoon-fed by an arthritic.) To some extent, the movie's slowness is a function of its mission: to show us that time is passing, that as Benjamin Button sheds his years, he's still racing towards a grave like the rest of us.
That's in a sense what Benjamin Button is about — paradoxically, by dealing with a character who miraculously won't get old, it aims to make us think about the fact that we will. And by separating aging from death, it reinforces once again that death is universal. All of those heartwarming characters we meet in the course of the movie end up dying, and we linger over their deaths. There's even a gratuitous black preacher who drops dead right after meeting Benjamin.
I always think, when reviewing a non-genre film like Button for io9, it's important to focus on its genre elements and how they're functioning in the story. In Button, the main character's mutant superpower functions as a metaphor for the way the past gets more and more important as you get older. Especially with the framing story, where we see the old Daisy reliving her life with Benjamin on her death bed, the point is driven home that love, and death, make time travelers of all of us as our future shrinks away.
The movie is a triumph of makeup and special effects, by the way. The whole business of making Brad up as an old man, and superimposing his features onto various other people's bodies, is weirdly convincing.
Major spoiler alert: The thing that really turned me off this movie, once and for all, is when Benjamin decides to ditch Daisy after knocking her up. At this point, they're both about 40, and he's courted her for two decades. Now that he finally has her, he suddenly freaks out about the fact that they're "meeting in the middle" and he's doomed to keep getting younger. "I don't want you to have to raise us both," he tells Daisy, referring to her baby and him. But it literally makes no sense to me — why can't he stick around until the baby and he are both roughly 20 years old biologically? Or if I'm doing my math wrong, at the very worst, he would appear 16 or 17 when Daisy was 18 or 19. Again, still not seeing why Benjamin can't help raise his kid.
It feels like the movie has some kind of weird pro-deadbeat dad agenda. Benjamin's own father abandons him, and then later they meet up and gradually become friends. They bond, and we're meant to forgive the dad for being completely absent. And in the case of Benjamin, after he abandons Daisy and goes off to India to "find himself," he selfishly comes back when his daughter is grown and he appears to be a young adult. Then he hangs around New Orleans (Daisy's hometown) and eventually she's stuck nursing him after he's turned into a senile infant. So even though he ran away, she still takes care of him in his old/young age.
It didn't feel like much of a love story to me, but maybe I'm too cynical.
I'm afraid I didn't like Button very much, but you may like it just fine. It has a 76 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, and I'm sure it'll do great at the box office. It's very Oscar-ish, too. I'd say, if you liked Forrest Gump, you might like this, although it's not quite as good.