There's no denying that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language, and smoking) is a lush, sprawling, beautifully made film. As a man born old and aging backwards into infancy, Brad Pitt turns in a stunning, varied performance, as does Cate Blanchett playing Benjamin's lifelong love Daisy. Yet, throughout, the film seems to lack the necessary ingredient to engage the audience with more than its superficial beauty.
This nagging dearth of depth may be explained by Button's screenwriter Eric Roth, who previously won an Oscar for his work on Forrest Gump. Asked about the moral universe of Benjamin Button, where few characters are married and those who are aren't faithful, Roth admits that he didn't consider the matter much, saying, "I guess you could say that if people love each other they are in some way married." But the marked absence of commitment is no puerile concern; it permeates the tone of the entire film.
Benjamin drifts through his life, connecting with one person, then another, but the relationships are marked by transience. His first introduction to love is with a married woman who ends their relationship with a little more than perfunctory note. His adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji Henson), certainly loves him and always provides a home for him, but when Benjamin returns after a long absence, Queenie's daughter has no idea who Benjamin is, suggesting little to no communication within the family in the intervening years.
Even Daisy, with whom Benjamin shares a lifelong passion, isn't able to claim more than a brief half-life from him. This all leads to a final scene that feels like a strangely tacked-on Hallmark sentiment that has little to do with the two and a half hours that came before.
Partially, the mythical nature of the story is to blame for this as a man growing younger can hardly be blamed for not having traditional relationships. Yet Benjamin displays little sense of loss, little heartbreak, little of the desperation to ground himself in someone else's life that would lend the story emotional heft. Instead, he is appealing as a strange, fanciful ghost, but never a real man the viewer can identify with.
From Schindler's List to The Sixth Sense and now to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, producing team (and married couple) Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy have built their careers on scripts that prize story over spectacle. Marshall, in particular, spent his early years training under film great Orson Welles, where he developed the skills to make sweeping, humanistic films.
The problem both have found is that over the years such story-driven filmmaking has fallen out of favor in Hollywood. "I think story is getting the short shrift today," says Marshall. "Now it's all about how big the action scene is or how fantastic the stunts are. I think up-and-coming filmmakers need to look back at the masters. There's a lot to learn from John Ford or Orson Welles about the filmmaking language. Not that everyone has to make an epic, but there's a narrative language that goes from A to B to C, and you can't just wing it all the time." Kennedy adds, "As a filmmaker, you educate the audience on how to watch films, and the audience is getting used to really fast cutting and lots of special effects, almost like music videos."
In contrast, Kennedy says she and her husband of 23 years take it as something of a personal mission to stem that tide. "We're always looking for something with some complexity to the subtext. We like life-affirming stories. You won't hear us saying, 'Bring us the next comic book hero movie or another remake.' That's not interesting to us."