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 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 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.
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.