The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Wallowing in a Pitt of Hokum

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is certainly curious—a modest F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man born in the twilight of life and gradually regressing toward dawn that has been adapted into a two-ton, Oscar-season white elephant. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Eric Roth, Benjamin Button announces its epic intentions right from the start: An orchestra tunes up on the soundtrack, and before you can say, "And the winner is...," the movie fades in on a prosthetically aged Cate Blanchett dying in a hospital bed. Unsurprisingly, the dying woman, who is called Daisy, asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from a diary—the contents of which, even less surprisingly, play out as decades-spanning flashbacks.

So we return to New Orleans, circa 1918, where the merriment attending the end of World War I is interrupted by the arrival of a baby boy (played, in a manner of speaking, by Brad Pitt) who emerges from the womb looking like a midget Methuselah. His mother having died during the birth, his father terrified by the sight of him, the strange infant is swiftly deposited on the doorstep of an old folks home. There, the childless, gold-hearted, Negro proprietress (Taraji P. Henson, though it could just as well be Butterfly McQueen) christens the boy Benjamin and opts to raise him as her own.

We're already a long way from Fitzgerald, whose Benjamin Button came into the world not only looking like an old man, but with the fully-developed body, wizened mind and ornery temperament of one too. But it's clear from the start that Roth and Fincher have considerably different aims. Closer in spirit to the Roth-scripted Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button is to the first half of the 20th century what Gump was to the second—a panorama of the American experience as seen from the perspective of a wide-eyed Candide.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett meet in the middle.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett meet in the middle.

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Directed by David Fincher. Written by Eric Roth. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond and Jason Flemyng. Now playing.

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Here as there, Roth reduces our complex times to a parade of shockingly straight-faced kitsch: A hellfire-and-brimstone tent revivalist imbues Benjamin with the Holy Spirit; a pygmy lothario serves as his introduction to the outside world; a drunken Irish tugboat captain shows him how to be a man. But where Gump actively trivialized history, Benjamin Button effectively ignores it. This movie about a white baby raised by a black adoptive mother during the inglorious years of the Jim Crow South never so much as once addresses race.

The strived-for atmosphere is whimsical and picaresque, the results mostly tedious. Very little about the first half of the film invites us in or gives inner life to the characters, leaving only the admittedly fascinating spectacle of seeing Pitt's computer-aged face digitally grafted on to the several pint-sized performers.

The movie finally gives off a spark or two at exactly the midpoint, when Benjamin is reunited with ballet dancer Daisy, whom he loved from afar as a boy but now can see socially without causing a scandal. The trajectory is obvious, although Pitt and Blanchett surrender themselves to it with reasonable conviction: She's getting older while he's getting younger; eventually, they'll meet in the middle somewhere, but that too cannot last. "Will you still love me when I have acne, when I wet the bed, when I'm afraid of what's under the stairs?" he asks of her. But it speaks to the treacly nature of the entire film that most of the scenario's potential unpleasantries are carefully elided.

It was just last year that Fincher delivered a great film, also three hours, on the subject of time. But whereas in Zodiac the passing years wrap around the characters like a vise, catching them up obsessively in a single distended moment, in Benjamin Button the ravages of time are trumped by a kind of eternal, undying love that mere physics is at a loss to contain. And Fincher, try as he might, scarcely seems able to buy into Roth's brand of Harlequin-romance hokum. In order for Benjamin Button to succeed on its own terms, there shouldn't be a dry eye left in the house. Yet, when the lights came up, mine were like sandpaper.

 
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