The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) -vs- Forrest Gump (1994)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -vs- Forrest Gump

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-ChiefThe Smackdown

Walking out of Forrest Gump in 1994, I remember thinking to myself that they ought to make more films like it.  A decade and a half later they’ve done just that, and it’s called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Both touching films are huge accomplishments in story, direction, effects and general envelope-pushing that owe a common source for their originality to screenwriter Eric Roth.  This time he’s gone back further in time from Gump’s baby-boomer adventures to Button’s that span the years from World War I to present day.  Both leading men are blank-slates who seem to end up (Zelig-like) in the middle of big events where their voice-over is used to lead us through the narrative.  The movies also take place in the South, share a female free-spirit love interest, a strong single mom, and folk wisdom “catch phrases.”

Does The Curious Case of Benjamin Button build on Forrest Gump significantly or is it just a pale imitation?  That’s the Smack attack here.

The Challenger

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button owes its concept to the famous remark by Mark Twain that the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst at the end, and a short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald made out of it in 1921.  The film takes just the essence, though, and tells a new story entirely.  Basically, it’s about a baby born on the day World War I ends who is biologically a very old man and who grows younger day by day.  It’s a wonderful “what-if” to contemplate, down to the possibility that Button (Brad Pitt) could meet the love of his life when he’s an old man and she’s a kid, have a love affair when they’re about the same age, and then end up with her as an old woman taking care of him when he’s just a child.  The scope director David Fincher brings to the screen is large: from its WWI beginning, the film takes us all the way to modern times and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The Defending Champion

When Forrest Gump hit the theaters in 1994, it was a pure original: nothing quite like it had come before.  Tom Hanks got the title role and basically hit it out of the park playing a man-child with an IQ of 75 who manages to be involved in every major happening in America between the 1950s and the 1980s.  As directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film manages to move forward relentlessly in its narrative scope and, before it’s over, Tom Hanks has taught Elvis, made JFK laugh, been a hero in Vietnam, opened up China with his ping-pong skills, run across America, and had a girlfriend die of AIDS.  The bases are covered every which way, but it’s Hanks’s dignified, down-to-Earth performance that sets it totally apart.  It might be a comedy or a drama, I’m not really sure.

The Scorecard

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a more serious film than is Forrest Gump, or at least it takes itself more seriously.  That’s not necessarily a plus.  One of the joys of Forrest Gump is how it lets the audience in on its extended joke.  There is a lightness in tone to Gump and a brooding quality to Button.  How you feel about each film may depend on how you feel the day you see it.

Technically, each film moved the bar in what was possible.  For Forrest Gump that meant inserting Hanks directly into existing historical footage in ways that were seamless.  For The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the effects are literally about the character itself.  Brad Pitt’s altered face is placed on a short actor’s body in early scenes and it looks right-on.

The actors are all first rate.  Tom Hanks won the Oscar for his performance and deserved it.  Brad Pitt is excellent here in Button, too, but his is a performance of restraint, of holding back.  He has done a great job, though, playing young when he looks old and playing old when he looks young.  Still, if I had to bet, he’ll get nominated, but he won’t win.

In cases like this one, it’s important to point out that this is a heavyweight championship bout.  Thank God that big-budget Hollywood can still toss out a great film like these two from time-to-time, even if they have to be sandwiched in between so much predictable and shopworn fare.

We don’t believe in ties, however, here at Movie Smackdown!  Somebody has to win.

The Decision

I had to wait a few days after seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to let it sit and set.  I knew it was good but I wondered if it was great.  There are things that detract from its power.  It’s a bit long.  The device that ties it to present-day gets a little worn-out.

There is also the reality that Gump was first.  Button is built on its discoveries.  It can’t be as good to win here.  It needs to be better.

All that aside, the reason that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button loses to the champion Forrest Gump is that it fell short at the character stage.  It has a wonderful concept, but the character it has chosen to take us on the journey is too reserved, too uninvolved.  Benjamin Button just doesn’t grab life fully the way that Forrest Gump does.  They both overcome obstacles in their lives with some grace, but Forrest Gump does it with joy.

We need more movies with joy.  You will enjoy seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a theater with a great screen and sound system but, even so, you should go rent or buy Forrest Gump for another spin in the DVD player.  It’s that good.

About Bryce Zabel 199 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.

3 Comments on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) -vs- Forrest Gump (1994)


  1. BUTTON doesn’t seem to have the “classic” tag immediately associated with GUMP when it was released. I’d be inclined to think that Mr Button won’t really gain much in the “classic” status at this stage, although certainly may in the “cult” version. Robert, I agree with your sentiments mentioned as well.
    For me, though, the “Bubba taught me all there is to know about shrimp” sequence is my favourite. Simple, funny, and memorable. Stuff that immediately rattles in the public conciousness, that’s what makes a classic.


  2. I thought these two were very similar. However, I’m not going to say your call is right or wrong. I think that it is too early to tell which is better.
    FORREST GUMP is a timeless classic. If BENJAMIN BUTTON is going to be one, we don’t really know yet. So, I will hold off my call for a few years. I can’t wait to find out.


  3. This is an excellent Smackdown and one that does justice to both of these remarkable films. Personally, I enjoyed BENJAMIN BUTTON more, but then again I’m kind of a “glass-half-empty guy” so the darker tone actually appeals to me more. Let me add that while both films possess state-of-the-art technical innovations, I was especially impressed with BUTTON’S use of the Thompson VIPER FilmStream Camera using Zeiss DigiPrime Lenses.
    As a filmmaker, I must admit that this is a camera package that I am not familiar with, however Cinematographer Claudio Miranda has done a fantastic job with this equipment and I cannot help but assume more feature films will be shot with this highly capable combination.
    Furthermore, the Production Design by Donald Graham Burt also deserves special mention, as does the entire special effects team, but the biggest praise of all must go to the 32-member make-up crew who worked in conjuction with the CG experts responsible for believably aging all of the characters over the course of seven decades. Utilizing state-of-the-art motion capture technology called the “Contour System,” the actual faces of Pitt, Blanchett, et al were magically placed on the bodies of age-appropriate actors required for the scene. This all sounds a bit bizarre, draconian even, but the end result is unforgettable — having the actual face of Brad Pitt, professionally embellished by highly talented make-up artists, appear seamlessly on an infant’s body provides a sense of realism that, heretofore, has never been realized.
    Of course, no film is perfect, and so I should mention that one of my associates at Needtovent.com found herself distracted on at least several occasions by Mr. Pitt’s inconsistent New Orleans accent. Also, just how Benjamin came to be a person who ages backwards is never explained, nor do we see very many characters who find this unprecedented state of affairs to be all that surprising. As an audience member one must simply accept what is presented on screen and not dwell on the whys and wherefores. And, lastly, some of the dialogue comes across as simply “too cute” — given the fact that Eric Roth also wrote the screenplay for FORREST GUMP there was a time or two I thought I might hear something about a box of damn chocolates. (That line — along with “I see dead people” — are two that I have never, ever bought into.)
    Still THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is certainly Oscar worthy and well worth seeing.
    In closing, let me add that I know there’s lots of terrific Smackdown’s coming from you as well as the rest of the team in the days ahead. Yes, Virginia, the Holiday Season is among us…

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