As of this writing, it’s now been five years since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was released. Maybe I’m alone, but it hasn’t felt like five years. That’s fitting for a movie that deals with the power, or curiosity, of time. Upon its 2008 release David Fincher’s epic was a modest success. The pricey drama was a hit with audiences, but it wasn’t exactly a universally loved film. Some Fincher fans considered it one of his lesser works and, as they were ever so fond of calling it, “Forrest Gump 2.” If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of his lesser works, which it is not, then this Fincher guy sure is talented. It is also no Forrest Gump 2, because Fincher’s film is far more thoughtful, moving and honest than Gump.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t without its problems. Eric Roth’s script is often a tad on the nose – “you never know what’s coming for ya” and the hummingbird – but, more often than not, this F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation is deceptively dark. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about living life to the fullest, but this is a movie where death is a constant reminder. Nothing lasts forever, not even New Orleans.
With that said, Fincher still shows his softer side, and that sincerity opens itself up to easy criticisms, both fair and unfair. What we can all agree on is it’s an extraordinary vision following an unextraordinary man. Benjamin’s a normal man dealing with even more normal problems, despite his disease, and that’s kind of the point.
Seeing Benjamin’s journey on the big screen was a sight to behold, but the movie grows more powerful on repeat viewings. In 20 years or so, time will serve Fincher’s flawed masterpiece well. There’s something to love in every scene of this film, but below are the six scenes that truly leave a mark.
A Story Within a Story
“A story within a story” is one of the many running ideas in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Everybody has their own story to tell. From Mr. Button (Jason Flemyng) to Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) to, yes, the man who was struck by lightning seven times, they all have their own large tales. The most effective one is Monsieur Gateau’s (Elias Koteas). It’s like a wonderful short film that snuck its way into Roth’s script. Structurally, is it needed? Not so much, but Mr. Gateau’s struggle with time is palpable throughout Benjamin’s journey. Their kindred spirits, both grappling with the reality of time.
A Matter of Time
One of Fincher’s most accomplished sequences. There have been movies whose sole focus has been on this idea – What if that alarm clock didn’t wake us up? What if we caught that last bus? – but none of them, not to my knowledge, have explored those questions more compellingly than Fincher does here. He only needs three minutes, not two hours, to express why every second and choice can count for something.
Dance the Night Away
This is an example of disappointment covered up by immense beauty. This sequence is so elegant, perfectly lit and staged, but it’s the farthest thing from a beautiful scene. When Daisy is in her 20s, she isn’t the girl Benjamin remembers or hoped she would become. She’s not only flawed, but a real jerk. Benjamin wants to “sweep her off her feet or something,” but at this point in her life she doesn’t want to be swept away by anyone. This scene of Daisy only wanting a one night stand with Benjamin is crushing, for both Benjamin and the audience.
This scene bugged me in the theater. What begins as a touching moment is interrupted by Benjamin’s narration. Captain Mike’s death is such an impactful scene that we know his last words will forever stay with Benjamin. Instead of showing Benjamin taking Captain Mike’s advice, Roth put huge exclamation points on this scene. With that said, I still tear up at Benjamin’s goodbye to his father. It’s manipulative filmmaking at its finest. Fincher is acutely aware of how to elicit an emotional response with the right framing and lighting, no matter how telegraphed the emotion is. His greatest piece of wizardry in this scene, though: Jason Flemyng.
Benjamin Button Takes India
The only scenes in the film David Fincher did not shoot. Fincher acquired the assistance of his good pal Tarsem Singh (The Fall) to handle his second unit. Employing Tarsem paid off, because the shots of Benjamin roaming India are stunning. He’s off on another adventure, but this time around he’s left behind something important: his daughter. There’s a sorrowfulness to Benjamin in these moments. We enjoy these incredible landscapes, but they only serve as a sad reminder for Benjamin of how far away he is from home.
Meeting in the Middle
When Brad Pitt is no longer playing an old man and there’s no more adventures out at sea, it would’ve been easy for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to lose its sense of wonder. You have to actually care for these characters to invest in the last half of the film, and you do. Not only that, but this is when the film’s greatest drama comes into play. When Benjamin is told he’s going to be a father, he’s not overwhelmed with joy. It would’ve been the safe choice for Fincher, Roth, and Pitt to make, but they don’t lose sight of the tough decision Benjamin knows he’ll have to make. It’s a bittersweet scene, and bittersweet is the best way to describe the rest of Fincher’s film. Whenever there’s magic on screen, it’s all in service of a tragedy.