reviewed by Marc Glassman
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. David Fincher, director; Eric Roth, script based on the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Starring: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy Fuller), Taraji P. Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline), Jared Harris (Captain Mike), Elias Koteas (M. Gateau), Phyllis Somerville (Grandma Fuller), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Spencer Daniels (Benjamin at 12), Elle Fanning (Daisy at 6), Madisen Beaty (Daisy at 11)
The spirit of Forrest Gump looms large over the mega Hollywood production of Benjamin Button. Both films are shaggy-dog stories, mock epics that position their incongruous lead characters in one outlandish situation after another. Though both have a sentimental core, they’re structured as comic melodramas with titular players who can barely cope with the strange events that buffet their lives. Despite the presence of Tom Hanks as Gump and Brad Pitt as Button, neither really dominates proceedings in these major motion pictures; they’re more reactors than leading actors.
The real auteur of the two films is Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for writing Gump and may well win another for Button. A superb scriptwriter, whose other credits include Ali, Munich and The Insider, Roth knows how to craft a tale with imagination and depth. With Gump, he structured a film around an idiot savant, who miraculously came up aces in nearly every situation. Now, with Button, he’s working with a character that ages backwards, starting life as a tiny, wizened old man and ending it as a dementia-ridden baby.
The bizarre premise for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald and his acclaimed short story from 1922. Roth changed the tale considerably as he had with Winston Groom’s novel, Forrest Gump. As in Gump, he reconsiders Button, making the story funnier and more emotional.
War is involved: the Second World War in Button and Vietnam in Gump — and each character learns much from the experience of battle. Both films involve African-American characters in major ways; Gump’s best friend “Bubba” dies in ‘Nam while Button is raised by “Queenie” in an old age home, which she eventually owns. And in each script, a huge swath of history is encompassed: from the ‘60s counterculture to the conservative ‘90s in Gump and no less than 80 years — most of the 20th century — in Button.
Gump and Button are blessed with great performances; who can forget Gary Sinise as Gump’s close friend whose limbs are amputated during the War, or Robin Wright Penn as Jenny, the girl of his dreams? In Button, Taraji P. Henson is wonderful as Queenie, Jared Harris is hugely entertaining as the drunken sailor Captain Mike and Cate Blanchett contributes her usual fine work as Benjamin’s great love, Daisy.
But if there’s a problem in Benjamin Button — and there is — it rests with the lack of chemistry between Brad Pitt and Blanchett. Somehow, you ended up caring about Hanks’ Gump and Penn’s Jenny despite the obvious mismatch between their levels of intelligence and cultural concerns. (Remember — Jenny was a hippie while Forrest was a Republican). Though they’re physically beautiful, Benjamin Button and Daisy Fuller never strike sparks. And that’s what makes Button a film to admire — but not to love.