starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton
screenplay by Eric Roth, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
directed by David Fincher
by Walter Chaw Based on an evergreen F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that had the decency to be a short story, David Fincher's extravagant, OCD-extruded The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is less one of this year's astounding ruminations on loss, regret, melancholy, and the ephemeral nature of love than it is a remake--tonally, structurally--of Forrest Gump. It highlights just how good, how complex and ambitious, Coppola's similar Youth Without Youth is--and it clarifies, if clarification were needed, how a high-concept becomes a gimmick without a core of gravity to keep it from spinning off into butter. The picture is thick with exploitive gestures, from its comic-relief mammy all the way through to Hurricane Katrina being used as the catastrophic backdrop that lends...what, gravitas?...to the melo-tragic love story that is the end-all of its Titanic framing story. How best to unite an ossified granny with her long-lost love than the mass-drowning and general devastation of a lot of people who don't matter one iota to our central drama? It's not deplorable in the traditional sense, I guess, but it's so saccharine and dumbed-down that it's aggressively offensive anyway. Benjamin Button painfully articulates everything subtle, melancholic, and beautiful about stuff like Synecdoche, New York, A Christmas Tale, and The Wrestler in broad pronouncements for the slowest students in class. When dealing with existential matters, it's best not to go the Celestine Prophecy/Jonathan Livingston Seagull route with platitudes and easy solutions to thorny, baseline questions about what it is to love, to age, to die. There's a scene in the film, probably more than halfway through, where one character says to the other that things pass too quickly and, more, isn't that a shame. A little later, those same two hold each other in front of a mirror and one says he'd like to remember how they are, right at this moment, as time plays its tricks on our affections. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Fincher's own Se7en, except it shows the head in the box.
Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born ancient and steadily de-ages as the years march on. The metaphor for him is a clock that runs backwards in a New Orleans train depot; the film is also a metaphor because the longer it goes on, the more naïve it gets. With a voiceover narration and a floating doohickey (a hummingbird replaces a feather) cribbed directly from Forrest Gump, it also steals that film's jubilation at exploiting its protag's special brand of magic-mutant optimism for whimsical effect. Thrill at his shrugging, shuffling acceptance when his tugboat gets strafed by a U-Boat (the film's best sequence); smile indulgently as he understates his joy at aggressively losing his virginity to a grateful whore in a Big Easy brothel; wonder as I did when shrimp-fetishist Bubba would put in an appearance to lend the period proceedings that special minstrel flair. That is, whatever minstrel flair is not already provided by "lawdy lawdy" adoptive mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin Button ladles on the elder slapstick (taking Nickelodeon care for us to witness a witless hick getting struck by lightning five times), the adolescent romance of watching sunrises and late-night hotel-lobby rendezvous, the hard decisions made by a retarded, gay shrimp farmer as it concerns his simple love for a woman caught in the tide of her times. Why Pitt chooses to play Benjamin--already a child trapped in Hume Cronyn's body--as slow and wistful is beyond me, yet between the elaborate fright makeup aging him for the first half of the film (and turning Cate Blanchett into David Bowie's dying vampire from The Hunger in the second) and a performance swaddled beneath a syrupy Loooziana accent, find a simpering characterization of a precious naïf gifted with an air of beatific benevolence. He's a simpleton drunk on the nectar of stupid is as stupid does: bumper stickers as Descartes from a director who, until now, could have been called any number of things, but never patronizing.
It's really no great surprise that screenwriter Eric Roth's claim to fame remains the abovementioned Forrest Gump. In viewing Benjamin Button through that prism, Roth's pictures in the interim wash out as either taken over by their directors (The Insider, Ali) or not (The Good Shepherd, The Postman), although arguably none escape his tendency towards tidiness and schmaltz. (Who can forget the Holy Land détente over good Motown in Munich?) What Fincher brings to Roth's script is a meticulous, painterly, digital eye, taking up the mantle from the dystopic digital wonderlands of the Nineties in presenting an idea that our perceptions, irrevocably changed throughout that decade, have settled on fandango as simply the way things are. In that sense, Benjamin Button has only substance to drive it: no more shaking hands with LBJ and teaching Elvis to dance, but considerably deeper waters amuck with existential sharks. To say that it's not up to the task is an understatement, to be sure, though it's also a key to identifying the film's entire inability to have a subtle motion without extensive expository narration. When a woman finally swims the English Channel after decades of regret, it's not enough that she does it--Benjamin has to notice it and, having noticed it, comment upon it with this shit-eating air of condescending self-satisfaction. It's a movie built for the Leonard Maltins and Rex Reeds of the world and, more importantly, for all the highbrow movie-istas wanting a shunt into this year's zeitgeist without suffering the fallout from it. You're better off reading Robert Herrick's 16-line "To the Virgins, to make much of Time": same message in about 1/200th of the time required to process it. Originally published: December 25, 2008.