The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

benjaminbutton-poster

The middle ground.  The whole big stink that Brad Pitt’s Benjamin and Cate Blanchett’s Daisy make in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is about the middle ground: how a woman who ages normally and a man who ages backwards, born as an old man and destined to die as an infant, can meet up in the middle, the same age both chronologically and physically at least for a short while, so that they can enjoy that little bit of time together as a normal couple before things get really awkward again.  They were looking for that middle ground in the thing called life, but I was looking for a different middle ground: the middle ground between different media, between literature and film.  Before I saw this, David Fincher’s gazillion-dollar epic, I knocked off the great F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story in, oh, less than an hour.  In short story and film, a man ages backwards.  Other than that, there’s not a single similarity.  I thought Fitzgerald’s short story was too simple, written too plainly and without flourish to be anything special or profound: like a throwaway story you tell your kids off the top of your head with the ‘this happened and then this happened and then this happened’ type of narrative.  Very forgettable.  Fincher’s movie, on the other hand?  Boy, what a 180˚ turn: so much shit happening I couldn’t keep track.  This ain’t the case of Benjamin Button, it’s every nook and cranny, every unfathomably extraordinary event of the life and times of Benjamin Button.  Fincher, with his usual visual flourishes, and screenwriter Eric Roth, taking a cue from his previous handicapped-man-seeing-extraordinary-things saga “Forrest Gump,” try to turn Benjamin Button’s life into the most interesting life ever…nevermind the whole aging backwards thing, ‘cuz we need some world traveling and naval battles to spice that up a little.  Fitzgerald’s story was too simple, and Fincher’s film is too convoluted, filled with too much…stuff.  So where’s the middle ground?

It tells you something when a movie is over two and a half hours long, and it’s too short.  The overriding key to the narrative is supposed to be the love between Benjamin and Daisy that transcends time, distance, and reverse-aging, but damned if that was able to shine through the various and extraordinary events of Benjamin’s life.  There was little if any narrative flow, it was just a series of completely separate vignettes showing this odd event in Benjamin’s life or another.  You know, I have the striking feeling that this just would’ve worked better as a TV miniseries rather than as a movie that tried to piece these episodes together halfheartedly.  Hell, all the separate stories are the ideal candidates for the perfect episodic miniseries formula.  Here’s the episode when a young Benjamin with the body of a seventy-year-old man is raised by his adoptive African American mother in an old-folks home and then visits the brothel in slummy New Orleans.  Here’s the episode when Benjamin has the affair with the British spy’s wife in Russia.  Here’s the episode when Benjamin and his merry band of sailors go to war.  Here’s the completely inexplicable episode where Benjamin, his narrative even more jarring than usual, explaining how coincidence after coincidence led to a tragic accident…a bizarre and unnecessary, albeit visually cool, scene practically lifted right out of “Magnolia.”  And here’s the episode when Benjamin and Daisy reach that all-important middle ground and settle down.  There’s barely a connection between these stories that justifies cramming them all into a single movie.  I mean hell, at least Forrest had Jenny to think about as he was wading through the marshes of Vietnam or running cross-country ‘cuz he felt like running.  “Forrest Gump” is an overrated bore of a movie, but at least it had that innocent, child-like bond between simple-minded man and his girl to weave separate, extraordinary events together.  That’s almost nonexistent in “Benjamin Button.”  You don’t get the sense that Benjamin’s thinking about Daisy back home while he’s at sea in that shitty little tugboat or carrying on that affair with Tilda Swinton, or unknowingly having a drink with the father who abandoned him years before.  They’re just disjointed episodes, spectacles for the sake of being spectacles, each with a different tone and presentation that just about makes the movie as a whole an aimless mess of a story that happens to look really, really great.  Over the course of two and a half hours we’re watching a man slowly make his way towards the infancy that every other human has the luxury of getting out of the way right out of the womb, but I wanted to see the motivation, the reasons behind the extraordinary things Benjamin sees and does, rather than just those events themselves.

But maybe I’m way off.  Maybe David Fincher wanted to create a fable, a parable, a fairy tale on a scale above and beyond F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.  Maybe that’s why a lot of Benjamin’s early life (lived in old age) is portrayed as spectacle, with the special effects of naval battles and that signature unreal lighting you’d expect from Fincher.  It’s the same production value that elevated “Zodiac” above the traditional police procedural, made “Fight Club” the subversive bible for the A.D.D. sufferer, and made “Se7en” a moody neo-noir minor masterpiece.  Fincher’s tradition of atmospheric lighting, shadow, and darkish tint are all here, and some of it looks great.  1920s and ‘30s New Orleans, though dark aesthetically, is bristling with life.  The film’s opening story about the construction of a backwards-ticking clock by a grief-stricken clock maker is shot strikingly, almost like a colorized silent film.  From the set design to the use of period music, you get a grasp of what decade it is as the story moves forward without being told.  Daisy dancing ballet on-stage and later for Benjamin in the gazebo, as she becomes a silhouette before the bright lights, is stunning, as she, or at least the person Benjamin sees, becomes a thing of myth.   A man aging backwards is mythic enough, I guess the expressionistic lighting and what-not are supposed to make Benjamin and Daisy kind of metaphoric, star-crossed lovers, and I gotta admit, the lead-up to their eventual union at that all-important middle ground, when Benjamin’s done with his whole geriatric James Bond / Indiana Jones phase, works.  At last we can forget for a minute that this is supposed to be a fantasy epic and we can watch two normal people have a normal romance and courtship, and the way these two just fawn over each other is sweet.  But of course things are destined to get awkward again once their roles reverse: Daisy gets old, Benjamin gets young.  I’m assuming that I’m not exactly spoiling anything when I say that that’s the way things are gonna be, and it is sad, and downright tragic, seeing the beautiful Daisy grow old and we see Benjamin, once an old man with a child’s energy, become a child with dementia.  It’s that sudden fall from grace into the tragic innocence of youth where Fitzgerald’s story started to succeed (too little, too late though), and Fincher’s film is also much more involving, and moving, in its second half.

A healthy young girl meets a young boy with the body of a seventy year old: separate in body, similar in spirit.  She grows older, he grows younger while setting out to find himself (or something like that…) until they meet up in the middle and see that as their ticket to fulfill their every desire.  Then, the process reverses: she grows old, he grows younger and younger to the point that a time will come when she’ll have to raise him as if he were a helpless child (a possibility they plan for while living together and starting a family in that middle period).  But really, is that very far off from normal life?  As Benjamin faces the prospect of becoming a tiny, helpless child with diminished mental capacity, is that not nearly the same as simply growing old and feeble with diminished mental capacity?  Is the prospect of an elderly Daisy caring for a now-infant Benjamin so different from an elderly wife caring for an old and sick and senile husband?  I really wish this movie touched more on that – how Benjamin’s condition is indeed extraordinary, but even with the backward aging and the many adventures he has, he’s not all different than any other person who must accept aging in whatever form, as well as changes in one’s self, the world, and the love of his or her life.  He has a one-of-a-kind condition that’s extraordinary, but he’s still a human being with a human soul.  Instead, David Fincher is biting off more than he can chew, with a story (or stories) that’s trying to be too grand in scope (case in point, the modern-day scenes in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina that just about exploits that terrible day), can be too Forrest Gump-ish here and there (the schmaltz, the little man drifting through huge, famous historical events, etc.), a production that can bombard our senses too much at times, and no performance that particularly stands out (Brad Pitt holds his own, but really, anything resembling a ‘great performance’ is just the work of a boatload of makeup and his face seamlessly superimposed onto a tiny, old body).  The idea of a man aging backwards and falling in love is extraordinary enough.  No need to give a movie with that basic premise the tell-tale signs of “epic” like a long run-time, globe-trotting, and CGI, because the groundwork for an emotional, philosophically fascinating story was in the middle ground all along.

7/10

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1 comment so far

  1. coffee on

    i was pleasantly surprised to find out that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story upon which Benjamin Button (the movie) was based, they mention this in the opening credits


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