There’s another story buried somewhere in Brad Pitt’s curiously bloated star vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one that is never allowed to surface, any more than any real character surfaces from under the immaculate CGI or makeup effects that propel the plot, and this applies equally to both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There are hints of something about how time is fleeting and how we need to appreciate every moment of our lives. How it’s possible to have a love affair with life itself, no matter what fate hands you. How age doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter. But those are all different movies, not this one, though this one is trying desperately hard to be profound.
It’s all about how we’re meant to respond. We’re meant to think that Brad Pitt going from an octegenarian babyhood to a time-worn teenager is a brilliant acting job. He’s being touted for an Oscar, and if he wins it there’ll be no justice in this world. One of the things that is so profoundly wrong about this movie is that he doesn’t age, or change, at all under all that makeup. It’s always Brad Pitt, with that smug, curiously bloated, smile, looking out.
We’re meant to get caught up in the great Romance at the heart - the lovers living life in reverse who can only meet in the middle (where, of course, Cate Blanchett is maybe just past her prime, and has anyway had her leg crushed and can’t dance, but Brad is at the height of his gorgeosity). I would have been more moved if there had been the least bit of chemistry between the two stars. There is far more chemistry between Brad and the exquisite Tilda Swinton. The brief romance between those two gets the movie nowhere but at least provides us with a glimpse of some real feeling. The romance between Cate and Brad takes forever to get going and then is over too quickly. And the really profound and interesting period where Cate gets to look after the toddler and baby Brad is just another wasted opportunity.
We’re meant, I think, so see Benjamin’s life as some reflection of “America” itself, much as we were with Forrest Gump (no coincidence, then, that the screenwriter is the same). The movie, like Brad Pitt’s performance, is one of the front-runners for an Oscar (“run, Benjamin, run!”), and if it wins, which it could well, it will be because, like Brad Pitt, the movie reflects back to Americans how they want to see themselves. Homespun, folksey, noble, beautiful, tolerant. Empty-headed.
Apart from the failure at the core of this film, there were other annoyances. The bushman who comes out of nowhere, apparently having been an exhibit at a zoo, to stay conveniently in the all-purpose, all-race, oh-so-tolerant old-folks home where Brad is brought up, presumably there to make gnomic utterances and signal how tolerant everyone is (oh, look, there’s white Brad Pitt sitting at the back of the bus with the short black guy! I mean, wtf?).
There’s the fact that Benjamin and his ship-mates are in Russia when Pearl Harbour is bombed, without anyone apparently noticing that several years of World War 2 had been going on - IN RUSSIA !!! The setting allows some more nice CGI effects of snow and streets with neon writing in cyrillic alphabet and for Brad and Tilda Swinton to eat caviar and drink vodka. And the war, of course, allows more demonstration of how brave and patriotic and generally wonderful our American hero is. And not only Russia, but Paris and the ocean battles and all the other settings are CGI and as fake as the emotions we are supposed to feel while watching the film. And Brad refers to the exquisite Tilda Swinton as “plain.” Of course, she’s British; she couldn’t be beautiful.
There’s the fact that Cate Blanchett doesn’t walk like a dancer. I normally love Cate Blanchett, but her performance here is mannered, as if an accent and some pointy toes make up for the fact that she has no character. As she got older, her accent slipped once or twice into Katherine Hepburn. I found myself wishing for Kate to blast in and wake everyone up.
There are the heavy-handed symbols: the clock, that blasted hummingbird. (symbols of what, I’m not quite sure…) And the thunderstorm that seems to follow Brad around. And why the blazes does the movie end with Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters wooshing in??
Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a well-meaning, beautiful and empty-headed mess of a movie, and no doubt will make millions and win dozens of awards for its star.