Having seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button twice now, I feel I can comfortably admit that I don’t get the point. Not of the film itself but of having Benjamin Button aging backwards. There’s a certain frisson when you realize that his backwards chronology is a metaphor for our own lifespans, that the difference between a baby and a doddering senile old man is simply 80 years, but beyond that… why bother?
I sat through most of the film excited for where it would go. There’s that cliche that old people say: “If I knew then what I know now,” the idea being that my accumulated wisdom in my 20 year old body would make me unstoppable. Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button is on a direct path to living that cliche; when his mind is in its 60s his body will be in its 20s. Given full ability and 60 years of hard-won wisdom, how would he live his life?
We never know. The second half of Benjamin Button’s life passes by in a montage that has you wondering why screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher decided to skip the best parts of the story.
Instead the two spend lots of time with Button as a young man in an old man’s body. Abandoned by his real father, Button is left at a retirement home (oh delicious irony! Screenwriting!) and raised among the old people. These scenes are, without a doubt magnificent from a technical point of view. Fincher first recreates New Orleans in the 1930s with a master’s eye, more than earning every design Oscar that will be thrown at his film. And the technology that allows Brad Pitt’s head to be placed almost seamlessly on a little person’s body is stunning. So much so that during my first screening of the film I essentially just watched that, swept up in the technical aspect. Much, I feel, like David Fincher was.
A second viewing, though, revealed little more. The life of young Benjamin is not that different from the life of any child afflicted with some kind of terrible physical ailment. He wasn’t born with the mind of an old man, so he’s just a kid in a very frail, very weak body. Unlike most children who are confined to wheelchairs, Benjamin gets better as his body gets younger, but so what? Beyond the desire to push the envelope technically I failed to see what the point was of Benjamin aging backwards.
As he gets older he has his first love, Daisy, a young girl who will grow up into Cate Blanchett, and then he heads to sea on a tugboat. He’s physically 17 when he does that, but he looks to be in his late 50s. Even here there seems to be no real point to him aging in reverse, since nobody pays all that much mind to his seeming age. “Aren’t you a little old for that kind of work?” he’s asked. “There’s no age limit,” he says, and the matter is dropped.
Once Pitt steps out from behind the FX things change a little bit. But Pitt has been given a character that doesn’t exist, and he plays him with so much reserve and zen-like calm that he keeps fading into scenes. Setting aside the fact that the reverse aging seems to have no impacts that couldn’t have been achieved in a non-FX heavy way, the most curious thing about this case is that the entire story centers on a cypher.
Eric Roth wrote Forrest Gump, and that lineage is obvious here. While not given to spouting asinine axioms and while he doesn’t keep meeting famous people, Benjamin’s life is a charmed stumble through history much like Forrest’s was. But at least Forrest stumbled into interesting events and, while he was incredibly passive, at times felt like he was acting on his own behalf in his own life. Benjamin Button may be the most passive titular character in a motion picture until The Terri Schiavo Story gets off the ground. To say that he reacts to events around him may be overselling it – he’s just there. Again and again Benjamin finds himself around people who make decisions for him, and he happily goes along with them. It’s baffling to think that no one saw this as a problem with the script, or if it wasn’t a problem no one thought that it needed to be addressed at some point. The only real decision Benjamin makes is one towards the end of the film that feels wrong, stupid and motivated by the screenplay as opposed to any rational thought process.
Making this passivity all the more irritating is the way that the script endeavors to keep Benjamin shielded from life. He grows up in the retirement home, which is there like a rock for him. At the beginning it’s hinted that the home may be in financial trouble – they can’t afford to feed this creepy looking new baby – but that never goes anywhere. Benjamin goes to sea at 17, but that seems more out of boredom than a need to earn a living. And when he gets back he learns that his true father is rich and conveniently dying, leaving him a fortune. Newly wealthy, Benjamin just keeps living at home, letting no life touch him.
There’s a love story at the center of the film, as Benjamin and Daisy keep coming into each other’s lives but never quite connecting until middle age (the only time when they’re sort of the same age). This should kill me – I’m a romantic at heart, and the idea of having a longing for someone so strong that you keep coming back to them again and again despite circumstances is one that should have me in tears. Except that Benjamin’s blankness removes any feeling of romance. Maybe for women this is a fantasy come true – a Brad Pitt who is mostly stoic who will keep showing up in your life until you’re ready for him. To me he came across as more than a little bitchmade, even if the movie throws in a Tilda Swinton affair to assure us that Ben isn’t simply waiting on Daisy.
Blanchett is remarkable in all the ways that Pitt is blank. She plays Daisy with multiple currents just below the surface; at times she’s seemingly full of bravado, but obviously riddled with self doubt. At other times she seems fragile on the outside but shows a reserve of deep strength just out of sight. The cruel irony of the story is that Daisy is the far more interesting character, and I would have rather seen the same film completely from her point of view. Relegating the empty Benjamin Button to the position of someone who keeps coming in and out of her life might have made him seem more mysterious as opposed to completely blank. And Daisy is a character brimming with life and reality, and the only character in the film who feels touched by the world. As time goes on and her outfits change, it makes sense. As Benjamin’s wardrobe updates with the times it feels wrong – he comes across as a character who is stuck in that nursing home in the 30s (and he’s stuck in that nursing home literally for much of his life anyway), and his wardrobe should reflect that.
The rest of the cast also performs well. Again, it’s the Forrest Gump thing, where the people the character meets may be more interesting than the main character. Taraji P Henson is wonderful as Benjamin’s foster mother; her low-key love affair with Mahershalalhashbaz* Ali’s Tizzy had all of the tenderness and reality that I didn’t get from Daisy and Benjamin, and in maybe 1/20th of the screen time. Tilda Swinton’s brief turn has her outshining Pitt in every scene. And I loved Rampai Mohadi as the African bushman who befriends a young Benjamin (weird note: part of the connection that Button and the bushman have is that they’re both little. But the impact of this is bizarrely diluted by introducing the bushman while he’s seated. What a strange, bad choice). The characters at the edges of the story are colorful and intriguing, each one catching your eye and helping you forget the emptiness at the center.
One character, though, who needs to be almost completely cut from the story is Julia Ormond’s Caroline. She plays Daisy’s daughter in the modern day; as Daisy lays dying in a hospital and Hurricane Katrina rages outside, Caroline reads Benjamin’s diaries (the fact that all of the film comes from his point of view makes his utter blankness so much more bizarre. You may think that Brad Pitt has a lot of lines in this movie, but most of them are voice over. In scenes Benjamin has little to say). This would be a fine wraparound story, but the film keeps jumping into it, breaking up the action so that we can revisit dying Daisy and her daughter and be reminded that it’s Hurricane Katrina. Every time I would sink into the film’s visuals I would get aggravated by these scenes suddenly barging in.
The film looks magnificent. The design and cinematography are glorious, as you would expect from a Fincher film. To his credit Fincher doesn’t go for the sentiment or sappiness (except for one horrible motif with a hummingbird that feels like it escaped from the worst Spielberg movie ever), and he’s not as chilly as many thought he would be. There’s genuine emotion in the piece, but it’s just all skirting the edges of the main character; for many this might make the film feel distant, but to me it made the film feel like it was mightily trying to overcome a massive handicap.
Looking back at this review I see that it’s much more negative than I thought it would be. The movie is in no way bad, and I had no problem sitting through it a second time. At nearly three hours The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no slog, which is saying a lot. There’s much to enjoy and admire here, but for a movie of this type I feel like admiration is not what anybody was going for. This is a movie you’re supposed to love, that’s supposed to resonate with you on a deep, personal level. I think it could have acheived that if Benjamin Button had something going on inside of him. Some viewers will like his zen-going-on-comatose style, but I found him frustratingly inscrutable and was unable to really give all that much of a shit about him. The film wastes the intriguing concept of a man who ages backwards, never doing anything really special with it, and I wouldn’t mind that waste if the backwards man were someone more engaging.
* holy shit