Audiences sometimes get confused when sensibilities seemingly clash on a movie.
A favorite example would be Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick's "A.I." There's a whole cadre of people who blame warm-blooded Spielberg for tacking a happy ending onto cold-blooded Kubrick's concept. Personally, I've always viewed the ending of that film as one of the most disturbing and sad conclusions possible. It just has the flaw of not being what either Spielberg or Kubrick fans might have expected.
I think "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is going to run up against a similar problem.
The presence of Eric Roth's name on the screenplay has instantly invited -- nay, demanded -- comparisons to "Forrest Gump," while director David Fincher has done everything possible to not make "Forrest Gump 2: Gump-n-Reverse."
Critics of "Benjamin Button" have been categorizing the movie as "cold." Those critics, suddenly rising to the defense of "Forrest Gump" after [justifiably] ragging on it for over a decade, are suggesting that "Benjamin Button" is trying to be "Forrest Gump," but lacking in emotion.
I'm not sure I agree.
Heck, I'm certain I disagree.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is almost the anti-"Forrest Gump" and its coldness or distancing quality is certainly intentional, even if it comes at the expense of involvement from a certain segment of the ideal audience.
As a quick reminder, "Forrest Gump" was the story of an ordinary man (heck, a less-than-ordinary man in many respects) whose extraordinary life coincides with all of the major movements of the late 20th Century. He meets famous people, spawns endless media attention and gets to become Haley Joel Osment's dad. Whee.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a parable about an extraordinary man who is born as a wizened infant and ages in reverse to eventually become Brad Pitt. Despite the fact that he's going backwards in time, nobody's particularly interested in his gift/curse. He gets no media attention and never finds himself hobnobbing with presidents or teaching rock stars to dance.
Instead, Benjamin Button lives as ordinary a life as it would be possible to lead under his circumstances and in his times. He goes to war and serves admirably, but without distinction. He has a couple careers and makes money, but not an embarrassment of riches.
Mostly, he falls in love. And falling in love is complicated whether you're aging forward or backwards, so the idea of a love story in which major impediments are put in front of our protagonist is pretty ordinary as well.
What some viewers are calling coldness is, in my opinion, a reflection of Fincher's desire to just depict a life, without the gauzy cinematography, the magic feather or the insistent Alan Silvestri score.
What Fincher does is respect the simplicity of this complicated life, while still giving it epic (159 minutes) and cinematic scale. But there are viewers who expect more for a movie this long and this visually sumptuous. There's a desire for more drama. More emotional high-wire tricks. More sizzle.
Similarly, there's this criticism of Brad Pitt's Benjamin as a passive hero. While life does, indeed, come to him, he isn't more or less passive than most people I know. He takes some opportunities and lets others slip by. The opportunities he takes are sometimes the wrong ones and he sometimes regrets the paths he didn't choose. He's passive by the standards of epic heroes or romantic leading men in movies, I guess. But compared to the peanut-butter-eating Joe Black (an over-long prestige dud I'm sure Paramount would prefer you not compare "Benjamin Button" to), he's a swashbuckler.
Pitt plays Benjamin appropriately as a man never comfortable with his surroundings or with his own skin. So he isn't demonstrative and he's both perplexed and grateful when people treat him with affection. Because Benjamin's version of childhood, maturity and old age have been tempered by both his physical difference and his psychological difference, it's sometimes hard to sit in the theater and ponder, "OK, so he's really 10, but he looks like he's 75, so he's behaving like he's... um... how old now?" And there are moments were that mental homework isn't necessarily rewarded, where you find yourself thinking, "I'm not sure that the backward aging thing is paying off the way it should."
Regardless, I confess that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" did make me think more than it made me feel. I think that fits the Fincher rubric pretty well.
And technically, the movie is an absolutely marvel in every way.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda is a great case of a craftsman moving up the ladder, having worked with Fincher on "Seven," "The Game," "Fight Club" and "Zodiac" in various crew positions only to rise to DP here. I wish I could think of a better way to describe the movie's visual style than to say it looks like it stepped off the pages of a rich novel from the period. In my mind, the color palette, is dominate by rich browns and tans, shades of nightime and dusk and dawn. Other colors make cameos in various scenes, but that's what stands out. After "Zodiac" utilized a staged looseness, taking advantage of its digital creation, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is more formal, more artistically composed.
I assume that the movie is loaded down with computer effects, but most of them (as was the case in "Zodiac") are meant to blend in and be artistic, but not "Lord of the Rings"-style ostentatious. The combination of make-up and special effects used to create the aging of both Benjamin and Cate Blanchett's Daisy is innovate and outstanding.
Even if Academy voters are cold to the movie as a whole, I'd be disappointed of Oscar nominations didn't go for cinematography, makeup and for Alexandre Desplat's score.
I like the performances, but will acknowledge that they sometimes get swallowed up in the movie as a whole. Pitt becomes less interesting the more Pitt he becomes. Always willing to escape from his pretty-boy exterior, he's liberated by the makeup and weighed down by his own inevitable handsomeness. Blanchett is steady as ever, but Daisy is a tricky and only occasionally fully realized character. Supporting work by Taraji P. Henson, Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton and Jason Flemyng is very good.
I keep going back and forth on whether or not I was able to take away any valuable observations about life from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and while that uncertainty causes me to hold back from my embrace of the film, I prefer the option of pondering to having had the message spelled out for me.