A man is born. He appears to have arthritis and several problems that only occur in the elderly. Doctors believe that he will die shortly. Nobody believes this man will make it a few more days, let alone weeks or years. That is, nobody except his surrogate mother, Queenie (Taraki P. Henson). She hopes and prays that he’ll live a long life. Well, we wouldn’t have a movie lasting 166 minutes if he died in infancy, would we?
The man I was talking about is the titular Benjamin Button (portrayed by many actors, but the main star is Brad Pitt). He’s born with some sort of rare disorder that makes him age in reverse. He’s born old, but gradually gets younger. Why he’s born as a baby (and dies as a baby, SPOILER ALERT) is beyond me, because I would think that if you’re aging in reverse, you would be born physically as an old man. But I guess an old man would be hard to give birth to. Besides, overthinking something so trivial like that is silly, right? (And also, how might bones and organs shrink to the point of a newborn child after they’ve been fully grown? Wouldn’t the skin fall off, even if they did? I’m overthinking this again, sorry).
Anyway, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes us through his entire life, from birth to death. It’s detailed to us through his diary, which is being read aloud by a woman who is reading it to her dying mother. The mother is someone who at one point of the story was romantically involved with Benjamin, and got his diary when he was still capable of writing out his life story. Her name is Alice, and for most of the movie she’s played, or at least voiced, by Cate Blanchett.
I had to leave the “or at least voiced” part in there because there’s a really odd couple of scenes near the beginning of the film where a very young Julie is talking to a physically old Benjamin, but the voice coming out of her sounds absolutely nothing like that of a 6 year old. Instead, it was dubbed over with Blanchett’s voice, only with the pitch slightly altered. I get it, we’re supposed to understand that this child is mature, but that comes through well enough in her dialogue, and this extra dubbing is distracting.
The most surprising thing about Benjamin Button is its budget, which was $150 million. I was in great shock about this number, because when you first look at it, there’s little reason to think it would be so high. At its core, it’s a basic drama film with only one scene with explosions, and there is little noticeable CGI to speak of. Sure, the two leads, Pitt and Blanchett might have cost a few (probably $25 million combined) million a piece, but that hardly gives us a budget of well over $100 million.
But then you look deeper, and you begin to see why the budget is this lofty. To begin with, the film spans decades, beginning on the day WWI ended, and continuing up until the mid 2000’s. That’s a lot of costuming and set-building that has to take place in order to realistically represent each of these time frames. And if you’ve seen other David Fincher films, you know that he’s one to make sure things are represented accurately.
Digging even deeper, you begin to question how much CGI was used. While several different actors were used to portray Benjamin Button throughout the film, I have a feeling that there was a lot of CGI used on his face. I’ve heard that almost every scene used some amount in order to make the actor older or younger, and given how much time passes, and how the character does seem to age with time, I’d believe that. Blanchett’s character ages too, although nowhere near as noticeably. And without wanting to spoil too much, in 2 years, she apparently goes from a perfectly able-bodied person to someone who is completely unrecognizable. It’s a little off-putting, but I suppose such things can conceivably happen.
There are parts of Benjamin Button that feel unnecessary. While we are, for the most part anyway, just watching Benjamin live his life, there are segments of the film that are largely unimportant. There’s a part where he meets a swimmer, Tilda Swinton, and the pair hit it off. And then she isn’t heard from again until near the very end of the film in a brief role. Benjamin didn’t grow from this experience, nor did it have any impact on the rest of the movie. It was just there, and just increased the already hefty runtime.
The biggest problem that Benjamin Button has is in its lead character. Benjamin doesn’t really have much impact on the story, even though it’s his story. He’s more of a passerby, observing life through the eyes of an outsider. But this makes him hard to relate to, especially when the other characters are rich and bring the film to life. Benjamin, on the other hand, is just there. He has no real character traits except that, yeah, he’s aging backwards. That’s good for him, but it doesn’t actually make much of an impact on the film except for in the beginning and at the end. It’s a gimmick and nothing more.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn’t an excellent film, but it’s good enough to recommend giving a look, especially if you want to see how well CGI can be used to alter a person’s appearance. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that we’ve come so far in our use of CGI that we can use it so that it isn’t noticeable — the best possible way to use it, in fact, is this way. The film is a bit of a mess, as there are pointless chunks of story and a character that is hard to care about, but it’s still worth checking out.