The film was released in North America on December 25, 2008 to positive reviews. The film went on to receive thirteen Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Fincher, Best Actor for Pitt and Best Supporting Actress for Taraji P. Henson, and won three, for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Visual Effects.
In August 2005, elderly Daisy Fuller is on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina approaches; she asks her daughter, Caroline, to read aloud from the diary of Benjamin Button.
From the reading, it is revealed that on the evening of November 11, 1918, a boy was born with the appearance and physical maladies of an elderly man. The baby's mother died after giving birth, and the father, Thomas Button, abandons the infant on the porch of a nursing home. Queenie and Mr. "Tizzy" Weathers, workers at the nursing home, find the baby, and Queenie decides to care for him as her own.
Benjamin learns to walk in 1925, after which he uses crutches in place of a wheelchair. On Thanksgiving 1930, Benjamin meets seven-year-old Daisy, whose grandmother lives in the nursing home. He and Daisy become good friends. Later, he accepts work on a tugboat captained by Mike Clark. Benjamin also meets Thomas Button, who does not reveal that he is Benjamin's father. In Autumn 1936, Benjamin leaves New Orleans for a long-term work engagement with the tugboat crew; Daisy later is accepted into a dance company in New York City under choreographer George Balanchine.
In 1941, Benjamin is in Murmansk, where he begins having an affair with Elizabeth Abbott, wife of the British Trade Minister. That December, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II. Mike volunteers the boat for the U.S. Navy; the crew is assigned to salvage duties. During a patrol, the tugboat finds a sunken U.S. transport and the bodies of many American troops. A German submarine surfaces; Mike steers the tugboat full speed towards it while a German gunner fires on the tugboat, killing most of the crew, including Mike. The tugboat rams the submarine, causing it to explode, sinking both vessels. Benjamin and another crewman are rescued by U.S. Navy ships the next day.
In May 1945, Benjamin returns to New Orleans and reunites with Queenie. A few weeks later, he reunites with Daisy; they go out for dinner. Upon failing to seduce him afterward, she departs. Benjamin later reunites with Thomas Button, who, terminally ill, reveals he is Benjamin's father and wills Benjamin his button company and his estate.
In 1947, Benjamin visits Daisy in New York unannounced but departs upon seeing that she has fallen in love with someone else. In 1954, Daisy's dancing career ends when her leg is crushed in an automobile accident in Paris. When Benjamin visits her, Daisy is amazed by his youthful appearance, but, frustrated by her injuries, she tells him to stay out of her life.
In 1962, Daisy returns to New Orleans and reunites with Benjamin. Now of comparable physical age, they fall in love and go sailing together. They return to learn that Queenie has died, then move in together. In 1967, Daisy, who has opened a ballet studio, tells Benjamin that she is pregnant; she gives birth to a girl, Caroline, in the spring of 1968. Believing he can not be a proper father to his daughter due to his reverse aging, Benjamin departs after selling his belongings, leaving a bank account book holding the proceeds behind for Daisy and Caroline; he travels alone during the 1970s.
Benjamin returns to Daisy in 1980. Now married, Daisy introduces him, as a family friend, to her husband and daughter. Daisy admits that he was right to leave; she could not have coped otherwise. She later visits Benjamin at his hotel, where they again share their passion for each other, then part once more.
In 1990, widowed Daisy is contacted by social workers who have found Benjamin—now physically a pre-teen. When she arrives, they explain that he was living in a condemned building and was taken to the hospital in poor physical condition, and that they found her name in his diary. The bewildered social workers also say he is displaying early signs of dementia. Daisy moves into the nursing home in 1997 and cares for Benjamin for the rest of his life. In the spring of 2003, Benjamin dies in Daisy's arms, physically an infant but chronologically 84 years of age. Having finally revealed the story of Caroline's father to her, Daisy dies as Hurricane Katrina approaches.
Producer Ray Stark bought the film rights to do The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the mid-1980s, and it was optioned by Universal Pictures. The first choice to direct it was Frank Oz, with Martin Short attached for the title role, but Oz could not work out how to make the story work. The film was optioned in 1991 by Steven Spielberg, with Tom Cruise attached for the lead role, but Spielberg left the project to direct Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Other directors attached were Patrick Read Johnson and Agnieszka Holland. Stark eventually sold the rights to producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who took the film to Paramount Pictures, with Universal Pictures still on as a co-production partner. By summer 1994, Maryland Film Office chief Jack Gerbes was approached with the possibility of making the film in Baltimore. In October 1998, screenwriter Robin Swicord wrote for director Ron Howard an adapted screenplay of the short story, a project which would potentially star actor John Travolta. In May 2000, Paramount Pictures hired screenwriter Jim Taylor to adapt a screenplay from the short story. The studio also attached director Spike Jonze to helm the project. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman had also written a draft of the adapted screenplay at one point. In June 2003, director Gary Ross entered final negotiations to helm the project based on a new draft penned by screenwriter Eric Roth. In May 2004, director David Fincher entered negotiations to replace Ross in directing the film.
In May 2005, actors Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett entered negotiations to star in the film. In September 2006, actors Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng and Taraji P. Henson entered negotiations to be cast into the film. The following October, with production yet to begin, actress Julia Ormond was cast as Daisy's daughter, to whom Blanchett's character tells the story of her love for Benjamin Button. Brad Pitt had collaborated with many of his co-stars in previous films. He co-starred with Ormond in Legends of the Fall, with Flemyng in Snatch, with Jared Harris in Ocean's Twelve, with Blanchett in Babel and with Swinton in Burn After Reading.
For Benjamin Button, New Orleans, Louisiana and the surrounding area was chosen as the filming location for the story to take advantage of the state's production incentives, and shooting was slated to begin in October 2006. By filming in Louisiana and taking advantage of the state's film incentive, the production received $27 million, which was used to finance a significant portion of the film's $167 million budget. Filming of Benjamin Button began on November 6, 2006 in New Orleans. In January 2007, Blanchett joined the shoot. Fincher praised the ease of accessibility to rural and urban sets in New Orleans and said that the recovery from Hurricane Katrina did not serve as an atypical hindrance to production.
In March 2007, production moved to Los Angeles for two more months of filming. Principal photography was targeted to last a total of 150 days. Additional time was needed at visual effects house Digital Domain to make the visual effects for the metamorphosis of Brad Pitt's character to the infant stage. The director used a camera system called Contour, developed by Steve Perlman, to capture facial deformation data from live-action performances.
Several digital environments for the film were created by Matte World Digital, including multiple shots of the interior of the New Orleans train station, to show architectural alterations and deterioration throughout different eras. The train station was built as a 3D model and lighting and aging effects were added, using Next Limit's Maxwell rendering software—an architectural visualization tool. Overall production was finished in September 2007.
The score to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was written by French composer Alexandre Desplat, who recorded his score with an 87-piece ensemble of the Hollywood Studio Symphony at the Sony Scoring Stage.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was originally slated for theatrical release in May 2008, but it was pushed back to November 26, 2008. The release date was moved again to December 25 in the United States, January 16, 2009 in Mexico, February 6 in the United Kingdom, February 13 in Italy and February 27 in South Africa.
On its opening day, the film opened in the number two position behind Marley & Me, in North America with $11,871,831 in 2,988 theaters with a $3,973 average. However, during its opening weekend, the film dropped to the third position behind Marley & Me and Bedtime Stories with $26,853,816 in 2,988 theaters with an $8,987 average. The film has come to gross $127.5 million domestically and $206.4 million in foreign markets, with a total gross of $333.9 million.
The film has received positive reviews, with Pitt's performance receiving praise. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 72% of critics gave the film positive reviews based on 238 reviews. Consensus reads: "Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an epic fantasy tale with rich storytelling backed by fantastic performances." According to Metacritic, the film received an average score of 70 out of 100, based on 37 reviews. Yahoo! Movies reported the film received a B+ average score from critical consensus, based on 12 reviews.
Todd McCarthy of Variety magazine gave the film a positive review, calling it a "richly satisfying serving of deep-dish Hollywood storytelling." Peter Howell of The Toronto Star says: "It's been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button suggests an addendum: a life lived backwards can be far more enriching" and describes the film as "a magical and moving account of a man living his life resoundingly in reverse" and "moviemaking at its best." Rod Yates of Empire awarded it five out of a possible five stars. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter felt the film was "superbly made and winningly acted by Brad Pitt in his most impressive outing to date." Honeycutt praised Fincher's directing of the film and noted that the "cinematography wonderfully marries a palette of subdued earthen colors with the necessary CGI and other visual effects that place one in a magical past." Honeycutt states the bottom line about Benjamin Button is that it is "an intimate epic about love and loss that is pure cinema."
A. O. Scott of The New York Times states: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, more than two and a half hours long, sighs with longing and simmers with intrigue while investigating the philosophical conundrums and emotional paradoxes of its protagonist’s condition in a spirit that owes more to Jorge Luis Borges than to Fitzgerald." Scott praised director David Fincher and writes "Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis, Mr. Fincher has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking" and further states: "While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like Minority Report, The Lord of the Rings and Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest." He also stated: "At the same time, like any other love—like any movie—it is shadowed by disappointment and fated to end." On the other hand, Anne Hornaday of The Washington Post states: "There's no denying the sheer ambition and technical prowess of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. What's less clear is whether it entirely earns its own inflated sense of self-importance" and further says, "It plays too safe when it should be letting its freak flag fly." Kimberley Jones of the Austin Chronicle panned the film and states, "Fincher's selling us cheekboned movie stars frolicking in bedsheets and calling it a great love. I didn't buy it for a second."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two and a half stars out of four, saying that it is "a splendidly made film based on a profoundly mistaken premise." He goes on to elaborate that "the movie's premise devalues any relationship, makes futile any friendship or romance, and spits, not into the face of destiny, but backward into the maw of time." Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian called it "166 minutes of twee tedium", giving it one star out of a possible five.
Cosmo Landesman of the Sunday Times wrote: "The film's premise serves no purpose. It's a gimmick that goes on for nearly three hours," concluding "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an anodyne Hollywood film that offers a safe and sanitised view of life and death. It's Forrest Gump goes backwards," while awarding the film two out of five stars. James Christopher in The Times called it "a tedious marathon of smoke and mirrors. In terms of the basic requirements of three-reel drama the film lacks substance, credibility, a decent script and characters you might actually care for" while Derek Malcolm of London's Evening Standard notes that "never at any point do you feel that there's anything more to it than a very strange story traversed by a film-maker who knows what he is doing but not always why he is doing it."
The film was released on DVD on May 5, 2009 by Paramount, and on Blu-ray and 2-Disc DVD by The Criterion Collection. The Criterion release includes over three hours of special features, and a documentary about the making of the film.
As of November 1, 2009 the DVD has sold 2,515,722 DVD copies and has generated $41,196,515 in sales revenue.