This post contains spoilers for the 2008 film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," but NOT the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name. I will carefully sidestep what makes Mr. Button different and encourage you to go read the story yourself.
I first encountered "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's collection TALES OF THE JAZZ AGE. That title is a misnomer -- while most of the stories collected are about the jazz babies and the bathtub gin, the collection also contains a number of what can only be called fairy tales. "Button" the story may refer to real-life places and years, but the world in which it operates is altogether separate from our own. It's a bewitching little tale and one that stuck with me the most after I finished the book, for its poignancy and the way it addressed themes without making them Themes.
Overall, "Button" is beautiful but cold. It actually reminded me of another movie I saw and liked in 2008, "Synecdoche, New York," in that they both deal with similar questions of mortality and aging and death. The difference between them is that "Button" strikes each note perfectly, but feels exact and mechanical in the way it unfolds; "Synecdoche" is a glorious mess with a whole lot of jumble, but which moved me deeply and whose symbolism I am still puzzling over. I wonder what might have happened if Charlie Kaufman, the madman/director of "Synecdoche," had gotten into "Button." Certainly, the ending of the latter echoes the ending of the former (in the way I reacted to it, anyway) but if I'm going to revisit one of them, I'm going for "Synecdoche."
That said, the film is a marvel to look at. I remember seeing "Zodiac" a year and a half ago, squinting at the screen because the projection was muddying up David Fincher's glorious shots of San Francisco by night. Here he dips into a yellow-and-brown palette to spin this fairy tale, and it is gorgeous -- reminds me of a silent film I watched in college called "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans," another long-playing love story, but with an incredible texture thanks to the digital video. This film is a lock for the art direction Oscar -- some of its images are, literally, breathtaking. And no one in this world is more gorgeous than Cate Blanchett, who plays an important figure in Button's life. Tilda Swinton is also in the movie in a smaller role, but she fades next to Blanchett's character Daisy, whose voice sounds off kilter in the first few screens but who does more acting with her eyes than Brad Pitt as Button can do with his entire arsenal of charm. Of course, Pitt is hampered by an often distracting special effect, but I'm shocked Blanchett isn't getting more praise for her role in this. Granted, Fincher builds her up in every shot to be the glory she comes to represent for Benjamin and for the audience, but wow, what a star.
That said, Blanchett's through-line is connected to what I saw as the film's major problem in adaptation: Changing the city where "Button" takes place and nudging the time frame forward (to encompass more of Fitzgerald's own time, for one) were both acceptable to me, as well as the rendering of Button in a slightly different manner. But for whatever reason, screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord chose to wrap this fantasia in a TV-level frame story that is just so lame. (And I must say, people are blaming Roth for this change because he wrote the "Forrest Gump" screenplay, but there's only one moment in the film I found Gumpian.) It's boringly shot, distracting from the central narrative and ultimately pointless. I understand the parallels it might set up, but no one who sees this movie needs its Themes to be spelled out in the way this frame story does. Not to mention, it adds nearly half an hour to the 168-minute picture. Leave the final scene if you have to in its clock-stopping brevity, and take the rest out.
Filmbook verdict: It's Oscar season and this is going to get nominated all over the place. So read the story, then see the film, then come back and debate me on it. If you like homework, get yourself to "Synecdoche, New York" and rent "Zodiac" (and for extra credit, "Sunrise") before going to the theatre. (Winter break's over! Get back to work!)
(For what it's worth, the four family members I dragged to see "Button" disliked the movie to varying degrees and all blamed me for boring them to death on Christmas.)