The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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Younger than Springtime
By Elbert Ventura

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Dir. David Fincher, U.S., Twentieth Century Fox

The movies, we are sometimes reminded, are a collaborative art. The director’s vision may be sturdy, his aesthetic coherent, but the fingerprints of others are usually detectable on the final product. Case in point: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher’s new movie, is as much Fincher’s as it is his screenwriter’s. The handiwork of Eric Roth, best known for Forrest Gump, is evident in this prestige production, a decades-spanning epic whose singular premise and piercing loneliness are ultimately overwhelmed by a soggy script trafficking in counterfeit lyricism.

And yet there’s plenty to like—and at times, even, to love—in the movie. Though based on a short story of the same title by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film actually resembles the original only in its premise of a man who ages backward—and barely so at that. In Fitzgerald’s story, which opens in Baltimore in 1860, a child is born not only resembling a 70-year-old man (right down to a beard) but also talking like one. In the film, however, the infant, born in New Orleans on Armistice Day, 1918, acts and weighs like an infant, even if he has the face, skin, and bones of an arthritic old man. Over the course of the next 80 or so years, Benjamin Button ages backward physically, even as time’s arrow hurtles forward. By his dotage, he will look like an ordinary toddler.

The story is told from a diary left behind by Benjamin. In a hospital room in New Orleans, an old woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett, speaking with an impenetrable croak) nears death as her daughter (Julia Ormond) keeps vigil. Out the window a hurricane named Katrina is beating down, though a nurse assures everyone that it will blow over. (That appearance by Katrina, a meaningless mingling of history with History, seems a Roth-ian touch.) Fading Daisy asks her daughter to read aloud from a yellowing diary. “I was born under unusual circumstances,” it begins, and the tale that follows is as tall as it is entrancing. Benjamin tells of his mother’s death during childbirth and his father’s abandonment of him on the steps of a stranger’s house. It turns out to be a retirement home, run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a kindly black woman who finds Benjamin and raises him as her own. A child in an old man’s body, he grows up in the company of the dying. It is there that he meets and falls for Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the residents. But Benjamin—looking all of 70—can’t act on his feelings, and all he can do is wait for youth, or at least the appearance of it, to come.

As played by Brad Pitt, Benjamin is in a perpetual state of anticipation and observation. Fincher’s movie may be flawed, but he and his star get its animating soul right. Benjamin bears traces of Forrest Gump—a passive observer of life’s rich pageant—but he’s wiser, wittier, and more self-aware than Tom Hanks’s condescending mascot. Marked for death from his first hours (the doctor, seeing his decrepit state, said he could die at any moment), Benjamin can’t help but possess an ennobling fatalism. Trapped in sagging skin and brittle bones, the young Benjamin can only look on from a wheelchair on the porch as kids his age play on the street. At night, as the old folks drift off to early sleep, Benjamin plays in the dark, silent rooms of the house, resigned to a friendless limbo until equalizing middle age. Rendered with make-up and motion-capture technology, the man-child Benjamin is a technical and expressive miracle. (Between him and Wall*E, two of the most affecting movie characters of the past year were CG creations.) The premise also makes us more attuned to the development of personality. As he grows older, Benjamin develops an appealing wryness and wary alertness, even as he retains a cautious detachment bred by years of being different. Passive yet affecting, Pitt’s performance may be his best non-comic turn yet.

Fincher surrounds Benjamin with the atmosphere to match. His previous movie, Zodiac, was a precise, withholding masterpiece. Stretching his legs, Fincher is in full Hollywood epic mode here, switching to a majestic, magic-realist register that he pulls off splendidly —for a while at least. New Orleans is the perfect setting, a city steeped in lore and dotted with freaks. Images of a wintry, depopulated Moscow, golden age New York, postwar Paris, and decrepit hotels and creaky houses at night add up to a lush vision of a lost world—or perhaps one that never existed. The best running joke is of an old man who recounts to Benjamin throughout the movie the different ways in which he’s been hit by lightning. Fincher illustrates these with quickie Melies-like inserts, hilarious flourishes that could just as easily fit in a Desplechin film. Benjamin Button is at its best when it reeks of mustiness and luxuriates in the eccentric—which is why the decision to shift the action up by 50 years from the original story for the sake of a contemporary tie-in is a mistake. As it approaches the present—that is, the nearer it comes to the familiar—the movie loses its enchanting hold. Magic is more convincing when glimpsed blearily through nostalgia’s mist. The present, with its cynical light, kills the illusion.

For all of Benjamin’s passivity—a reflection of the director’s own detachment—the movie suffers from an incurable sentimentality. The first, and most fatal, infraction is the framing device, an unnecessary conceit that recalls not just Gump but also Titanic, another treacly Oscar magnet. Maudlin and poorly acted, the scenes in the present are out of step with the rest of the movie. Just as the fantasy picks up steam, reality rudely interrupts, right down to the pointless exploitation of Hurricane Katrina. Roth’s script also falters on the level of language. The Hallmark homilies are relentless. Though less abundant than in Forrest Gump, the groaners here are more consequential for marring a movie with actual promise. Instead of “Life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get,” we have the recurring reminder: “You never know what’s coming for you.” More homespun wisdom: “When it comes to the end, you have to let go.” And more: “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” Then there’s a hummingbird that pops up, a symbol of something, possibly Eric Roth’s failed stab at lyricism.

Although it has never been mentioned by any of the people behind the movie, at least in the articles I’ve read, another reference for the film may have been Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a novel that was itself inspired by the Fitzgerald, which in turn was inspired by a Mark Twain quotation: “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” (Greer also credited another famous line for his conceit: “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”) The movie shares certain qualities with the novel: ripe romanticism, overcooked language, an indifference to the mundane details of its premise (for instance: what cosmetic tweaks must one make to keep others from noticing age’s retreat from your body?). As with the movie, the centerpiece of the novel is a romance, doomed to fail because of the protagonist’s condition. As with the book, the movie’s romance is at best intermittently affecting. Chalking up their love to “kismet,” as Daisy calls it, the movie charts an overdetermined course for Benjamin and Daisy, a tortuous arc shaped by writerly contrivance that feels like a simulation of falling in love rather than the real thing.

Instead of his romantic yearning, it is Benjamin’s existential aloneness that resonates. Which raises another problematic choice by the filmmakers: to give the old Benjamin—that is, Benjamin as a boy—a case of dementia. While certainly plausible in context, the affliction negates the tragedy of his condition. The movie’s power derives from seeing through Benjamin’s eyes the world rushing past as he moves in the other direction. Denying him his memory obliterates his identity—and the movie’s poignant perspective. The child we see is no longer an old man who knows that he is trapped in a child’s body —a boy aching to introduce himself to his grown daughter, or staring longingly at the woman he’d like to grow old with but can’t. The movie reduces the old Benjamin to a troubled kid, released from the dreadful knowledge of a lifetime.

Adding insult to injury is the movie’s coda, a montage of the movie’s characters accompanying Benjamin’s parting voiceover benediction. The uplift rings false—as does the sight of a blasted hummingbird fluttering out the dying Daisy’s window. The movie itself is a curious case: What to make of a movie of equal parts beauty and banality, imagination and hokum? Fincher’s captivating spell lingers after the movie’s done—but the disappointment of what could have been lingers longer. Perhaps a second consecutive masterpiece from Fincher was too much to ask for. But the surprise is that Fincher, with help from his screenwriter, created something I didn’t think he was capable of: prestige kitsch.