Friday, December 10, 2010
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008): From Old Age to Youth
To begin with, the only thing the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has in common with the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name is that the lead character ages backwards. Fitzgerald’s story is satire with a bite. The film has about as much bite as the old looking Benjamin Button gumming his food without his dentures. We travel the decades from the end of World War I to Hurricane Katrina yet the film gives us no indication of the significance of what we are seeing. Questions of race relations, economic hard times, technology, culture and reasoning for going to war appear unimportant to the film makers as compared with the interests of filling the screen with panoramic scenery. The premise of the movie is cute, many of the early scenes are comical, and the last hour of this 166 minute film is about as dull as any movie can possibly be.
Thomas Button’s wife dies in childbirth on Armistice Day in 1919, but she does manage to deliver a child that is by all appearances a freak of nature. The infant child named Benjamin is wrinkled and appears to be suffering from all of the infirmities of old age. Thomas (Jason Flemyng) is so shocked by the appearance of his new born son that he abandons the child on the doorsteps of a nursing home. A young black woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), that runs the nursing home rescues the child and ends up raising the boy as her own. Benjamin is not expected to live long, but to everyone’s surprise he seems to get over the ailments and continually grow younger. Benjamin, now played by Brad Pitt, learns from the residents at the nursing home along with various guests including a pygmy that traveled to New Orleans from Africa. At the same time, Benjamin meets his real father that happens to be a rich manufacturer of buttons. Most importantly, he meets Daisy, a young girl that he will remain in contact with off and on for the remainder of his life.
When Benjamin is no longer in need of a wheelchair or crutches, he befriends a sailor by the name of Captain Mike (Jared Harris). Captain Mike introduces Benjamin to the pleasure of women at a brothel and eventually takes him aboard his boat as a trustworthy seaman. During this time, Benjamin also assists his biological father, Thomas, and Benjamin is with Thomas when the latter dies while looking at a sunrise along the gulf coast. Sometime during the 1930s, Benjamin meets a rich heiress named Elizabeth Abbot (Tilda Swenson) in a Russian port. Elizabeth seems stuck in a loveless marriage to a man much older than her (though he probably is not as old as he seems). We are told that Elizabeth once made an unsuccessful attempt to swim the English Channel. What at first starts as all night conversations over a cup of tea (conversations we never get to hear) eventually develops into a love-affair. Appropriately, one evening Elizabeth simply disappears. When America enters into World War II, Captain Mike is so outraged at the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor that he decides to use his boat in the service of his country. Benjamin is one of the few crewmen that stick by the Captain. Eventually, the boat does see action and manages to sink a German submarine, but almost everyone on the boat besides Benjamin is killed. After the war, Benjamin returns to the nursing home run by Queenie. Benjamin now has the appearance of a robust youth while just about everyone else he knew has greatly aged or even died. Benjamin also again meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now all grownup and beautiful. Naturally, after a few false starts, the two become romantically involved and this in time leads to the birth of a healthy girl by the name of Caroline. Benjamin stays with Daisy and the girl just until the point when Caroline is still not old enough to remember who he is. Benjamin eventually leaves the two because he does not want to become a burden upon Daisy when he is too “young” to take care of himself. Benjamin hopes that Daisy will meet another man that can take care of her and Caroline. The adult Benjamin meets Daisy once more after Daisy had married someone else, and Benjamin is given the opportunity to see what Caroline looks like. He also gets to have a one-night liaison with Daisy who is by now much older looking than Benjamin. Finally, when Benjamin has reverted to childhood but is suffering from symptoms similar to dementia, Daisy returns to the home that Queenie had once run and cares for Benjamin - until the time that he dies in infancy. On her death bed, Daisy has her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormand) read from Benjamin’s diary revealing who Caroline’s true father is.
Not surprisingly, the screenplay was written by Eric Roth, the same writer that penned the screenplay for Forrest Gump. What is surprising is that the movie is directed by David Fincher, the same person that directed Fight Club. It’s difficult to comprehend how two movies could ultimately be as different as Benjamin Button and Fight Club. The former ends making some viewers blubber while the latter both shocks and surprises. I guess it all depends upon what one wants that will determine which of the two movies the viewer will prefer. We know that there’s going to be heartache when Benjamin and Daisy have to part company because their destinies appear to be moving in two separate directions. That’s fine. But the makers of this movie seemed to be determined to keep the two together long after we can see the inevitable separation taking place. Part of a good love story is knowing that the two parties will by necessity part company. It only makes the story grubbily sentimental if we try to artificially prolong it. Benjamin Button unnaturally prolongs it to the point where Benjamin in a twenty year old body is now sleeping with the fifty year old Daisy. That’s nice for a black comedy like Harold and Maude, but it seems jarring in a part romance/part fantasy.
I like the Benjamin in his early years as an old man as he struggles through his peculiar situation and learns along the way. I don’t care for the Benjamin that grows young and has everything given to him. Part of the reason why Brad Pitt was effectively cast in the role of Benjamin is that it’s so difficult to hide his vitality. Even plagued with his early infirmities, we notice his youthful eyes. Everyone adores that Aunt or Uncle that refuses to be old. However beat up their exterior may appear these individuals always make everyone around them feel younger. The character of Benjamin also has that same effect on everyone … except for the adult Daisy. There is no chemistry between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. With the adult Daisy, Benjamin doesn’t seem to laugh at his particular circumstances or grow in any direction at all. The two are so serious together that, in his relationship with her, the youthful looking Benjamin almost seems old.
I guess I’m disappointed because Benjamin Button started off so well. We get to see postcard glances of the various historical epochs that Benjamin lives through as he ages backwards. Surrounding circumstances add to the incongruity of his situation. Benjamin’s a white old man-child raised by a young black woman in a nursing home. The faith healer - supposedly providing the miracle allowing for Benjamin to get up from his wheelchair and walk - drops dead of a heart attack immediately after this so-called miracle takes place. We get the farfetched scenes of Benjamin being with a woman for the first time as a supposedly decrepit old man. The Benjamin that takes the child Daisy out on various adventures including the boat ride with Captain Mike reveals the connection between the two characters. And we enjoy seeing the Benjamin, who at this time we are so used to seeing in an old man’s body, hop on a motorcycle and go out for a ride. Finally, Benjamin gets one last glimpse of the heiress Elizabeth on a television clip when it is revealed that she is the oldest woman to ever successfully swim the English Channel. All of this has human and comic touches. When the film loses its comic touches along with its sense of adventure (which occurs it practically every scene that Cate Blanchett appears), it loses all of its charm for me.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been nominated for thirteen Oscars. All this really proves is that, like the movie, the Academy Award Committee has everything backwards. Give it the award for Cinematography, Editing, Makeup or Best Costume Design and I’m fine with their choices. Give it an Oscar for Best Picture and I will again question what little credibility the Academy Awards already has with me. If the director had cut an hour off of this movie and removed Cate Blanchett from the casting, the movie would have been better - though never outstanding.
January 26, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009