A video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz
The following is the text of a video essay on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button commissioned by Moving Image Source, the online magazine of The Museum of the Moving Image.
David Fincher's seventh feature, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man struggling to hold onto his love for a woman named Daisy while aging backwards from old age to infancy, is by any reckoning a film too huge to ignore. It has a heavyweight cast, including Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and a massive $150,000 budget that required the collaboration of two studios, Paramount and Warner Bros.; it was released at the end of 2008 at the height of awards season and eventually garnered 13 Academy award nominations, including nods for Fincher's direction and for Pitt's performance in the title role. Yet the film, just released on DVD through Paramount/the Criterion Collection, was not an unqualified popular or critical success, earning less at the box office than its budget, and dividing reviewers. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern called it "a one of a kind meditation on mortality, time's inexorable passage and the fleeting sweetness of love." The opposite end of the spectrum was represented by Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who wrote of the Se7en and Zodiac director: "Giving Fincher this project is like asking the great French humanist director Jean Renoir to do a slasher movie." Turan's sense that the film was too coldly perfect and too obsessed with mood, production design, and special effects technique—particularly the CGI that aged Pitt's character backward—was echoed by many detractors.
Another persistent gripe was that the title character wasn't really much of a character—just a cipher, more acted upon than acting, which made his story undramatic and the film a crashing bore. San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle wrote, "To call Benjamin a passive protagonist is not enough. He's all but inert, and the movie defines him almost exclusively in terms of his aging process. He has no interests, no ambition, no position save that of an outsider, and no desire except for Daisy. He is an uninteresting person to whom something medically interesting has happened. For the screenwriter, this is the weakest possible choice." LaSalle's condemnation of the crux of Button—the essential helplessness not just of the afflicted hero, but every other character as well—is perhaps the key to understanding the wildly divergent critical reactions to the film's technique, story, and themes. It's a worldview thing: either you share the film's philosophy and appreciate the elementally simple way it expresses it, or you find the entire contraption obvious, precious, trite, and dull. The unabashed enthusiasm with which Button articulates its concerns all but eliminates any possibility of critical middle ground.
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