The Lugubrious Life of Benjamin Button

by J.D. Roth

I’m cleaning out some of my old text files, and I found this movie review, which I wrote last spring. Since tonight’s Oscar night (and this film was nominated for Best Picture last year), it seems like a good time to share it.

You know, a lot of times when I see well-reviewed movies, I like them. And even if I don’t, I understand why other people might. But there are times when I see a critically-acclaimed movie that I just don’t get it. So it is with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a recent movie about a man who ages backward. He’s born old and dies as an infant. (This is just like Mork from Ork’s son, if you’ll remember.)

Benjamin Button is not a bad movie; it’s just a bland movie, with nothing in particular to recommend it. The filmmakers want for the plot to be heavy and laden with meaning. It’s not. It’s almost poignant — but not quite.

For me, one of the most bizarre aspects of this film was how clumsy some of the shots seemed to be. I don’t tend to think of cinematography or staging as “clumsy”. Most of the time when we see a Hollywood film, things are so polished that they’re orders of magnitude beyond clumsy. But in this movie, there were a couple of times that I thought to myself, “That was awkward.”

(And here I wish I’d noted an example, but it’s been two weeks since I drafted this, and I can’t remember a specific instance of what I mean.)

Still, the film has its moments. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Button writes to his daughter:

It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

That’s brilliant stuff. I buy into this mindset 100%.

And here’s a terrific bit of dialogue that’s wasted in this film. Benjamin and Daisy, the love of his life, are “meeting in the middle”. He’s growing younger and she’s growing older. At this point, he’s about 26 (though looks 50ish) and she’s about 20. They go out to dinner. She pulls out a cigarette:

Benjamin: I didn’t know you smoked.
Daisy: I’m old enough. [beat] I’m old enough for a lot of things…

In a different movie, that could have been great. In this movie, it’s just sort of flaccid, as is much of what happens here.

Though I didn’t hate this film, I liked very little of it. My favorite part is probably the five or ten minutes during which Benjamin lives in the Russian city of Murmansk. He strikes up an affair with the wife of an American spy. While everyone else is asleep in their hotel, Benjamin and this woman spend time downstairs in the lobby, in the kitchen. They stay up all night and then separate in the early morning hours. It’s as if they live in an empty world that belongs only to them.

There’s no emotional center in Benjamin Button — none that you can believe, anyhow. It all feels contrived.

Updated: 07 March 2010

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