2000s, Drama

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)


Director: David Fincher

By Roderick Heath

When I was around 10 years old, my mother, a nurse, took a weekend job as the senior matron at a nursing home. I would often come to work with her and talk to the aged residents, helping to bring them dinner, making friends. I would run around acting out adventure stories. One of the grey-haired old ladies would always come up to me and ask, “Are you winning?” In its way, a half-empty nursing home was the greatest playground a boy could have. I also came to understand mortality there in an intimate way. One night, I found my mother attending to the body of one of the old men who had just died. Death looked awfully peaceful to me. Handily, if a trifle insensitively, the funeral parlour was right next door.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button put this back into my mind, mostly because the bulk of the first hour is indeed about a young man (albeit one who’s physically old) utterly at home in an old folks’ residence. It chases a feeling I understand from that experience. An attempt to conjure an elegiac epic out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s caustic short story, it retains one key idea of Fitzgerald’s aesthetic: the need to be very careful about what one wishes for, be it wealth, love, or to defy the usual strictures of age. Benjamin, born on Armistice Day, 1918, is a crinkled, miniature old man at the point of birth and a mindless infant when he dies at the age of 85, thus treating with deadly seriousness the story’s inspiration, a quip by Mark Twain that youth is, in essence, wasted on the young. Button seems to tap into a great American fantasy of never growing old, indeed, of regressing to something more pure and vigorous.

In the film, Benjamin’s life is linked somehow to another tale, shorter in the telling, of a blind clockmaker (oh yes, we’re deep in fable territory now), Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas). Having lost his son in WWI, Gateau built a clock for New Orleans’ railway station that turns backwards—a hopeless cry for time to be reversed. Benjamin, too, is in reverse. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), horrified by the sight of his child, leaves him on the steps of an old folks’ home, where he’s adopted by a black nurse (or maid, or whatever she is—it’s never quite spelt out), Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her beau Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). Benjamin fits right in at first amongst the decrepit residents.

In the story, he’s born fully formed, both physically and intellectually, an ornery old codger who’s irritable and bossy with both his nurses and his glum father. In the film, as he grows, er, younger, Benjamin manages to go through all the usual rites of passage. He learns to read and talk, and then to walk, inspired by a preacher at a revival. He gets a first job on a tugboat working with its captain, Mike (Jared Harris), has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and has his first real affair with a middle-aged, lovelorn woman named Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) who, married to a chilly British trade official-cum-spy, counts herself a wash-up. All the while, he carries a torch for Daisy (Elle Fanning, later Cate Blanchett), whom Benjamin met when she was a young girl who visited her grandmother in the home. At first, it’s a hopeless romance—she’s a pixie and he looks like a midget George Burns—but eventually it flowers.

It’s the sort of yarn that can finish up dire translated in the literalism of cinematic images, so Button is careful to make analogies between growing old and growing young—a nearly three-hour edition of Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about your first and last birthday parties being much alike—as a yardstick for emotional and physical realism to couch its conceit. Here, the film is a success: it subordinates disbelief and moves according to its own necessity. Button’s at its best when it’s being larkish. A great running gag has one of Benjamin’s elderly friends constantly recalling that’s he’s been struck by lightning seven times, always cueing a silent-movie-fashioned flashback to each occasion. But that’s the sort of throwaway touch that the otherwise elephantine film lacks. There’s a stream of cinematic invention and commitment from the cast and technicians that pays off sometimes in fine images, from the withered Benjamin rising from his wheelchair to take his first stilted steps, to the last shot of the magical clock being swamped by the rising flood waters following Hurricane Katrina. The production happily shows off all the cash, craft, and spit-polish Hollywood can still muster better than anyone. The story is absorbing, intriguing, and ambitious. And yet there’s something empty about Benjamin Button, both man and film, which fails to grasp the brass ring of greatness it’s so patently reaching for.

Button fails to make a point that doesn’t seem easily reducible to homily. Aging is natural, love is blind, all things pass, etc. It’s not a social portrait, or a satire, or a whimsical fantasia, or an investigation of our concepts of age and time. It’s ultimately just another tale of perfect love spoilt by shit happening. The promise of that symbolic clock, the code in its construction for the legacy of rage and grief over human waste, finds no analogy in Benjamin’s life, which remains divorced from the stage he moves across. The clock, which in the film’s last image is drowned, seems to promise some concept of both history and humanity that’s never drawn out. Wars come and go, eras pass, arts, morals, cultures, societies alter, and though Benjamin is a player in these (he loses most of his friends on the tugboat in a battle with a U-boat during WWII), his life offers no perspective on any of this, except in relation to Daisy and his daughter Charlotte. Despite all the ferocious effort and money expended on constructing an illusion of passing time, time doesn’t pass—only story points are checked off. The film tries to floor us with its vision of life and death, but the longer it goes on, the less interesting and emotional it is.

Commentators have noted that the film follows the template for Eric Roth’s screenplay for Forrest Gump (1994), and it’s true, though it’s not nearly as trite a film. Nonetheless, the similarities are uncomfortable: the shallow cultural touchstones (tent show preachers, Teddy Roosevelt, George Balanchine, The Beatles); the protagonist goes to a war that feels like a tedious joke until it provides a great way for some major supporting characters die. Benjamin, like Forrest, is a perpetual outsider boy-man whose life thrusts him into the most extraordinary places, and yet he exists in a fiscal and political vacuum. His untainted amour causes him to cringe at his true love’s messy, ungainly efforts to be a rare and extraordinary creature: he desists from spoiling his love by giving in to her first, straining-to-be-wanton come-on. It’s as if Roth is trying to keep alive another American tradition—the one Leslie Fiedler identified—of the incapacity of traditional American narrative and its heroes to deal with adult sexuality.

Likewise, the film imagines the past as a racism- and sexism-free land of infinite jest. There’s no prejudice in the old folks’ home, or anywhere else. Benjamin’s contrasting perspective on all things is never used for anything. Benjamin is passive. He has no intellectual depth, no inner existence that we comprehend, and doesn’t seem especially psychologically troubled. He maintains a serene disconnection from life (which fits Pitt’s withheld, too-cool-for-you acting persona to a tee), and at no point bemoans his lot. He ought to be in fundamental conflict with his world, but instead, he drifts along almost serenely. His one moral act of actual consequence is to leave his family.

The characters Benjamin encounters—a Shakespeare-quoting black servant, a witty and wise African pygmy, a drunken Irish tugboat captain who’s a self-tattooing, self-proclaimed artist with a deep knowledge of hummingbirds— all seem to have been sent down from a fantasy-whimsy version of central casting, the sorts of flourishes artists attempting to tell tall tales pack into their narratives, thus murdering the art of telling the tall tale. One sequence painstakingly analyses the various small causes that contribute to Daisy receiving a career-killing injury, a patent piece of we-watched-Run, Lola, Run-too jimcrackery that only establishes how tired some of this gimmickry and faux-philosophy is getting. The final montage of its characters, as Button describes their diverse characteristics, is more poignantly reminiscent of a Microsoft ad than anything else.

The point that Twain was making was that in a fair universe, the wisdom and control that comes upon a man in his older years ought to be matched to his greatest years of physical robustness. The film cops out On Benjamin’s confronting the terror of mortality by skipping over the crucial age between when Benjamin sets out to ride around the world on his motorcycle and returns as a demented child—he’s there and then he’s gone. It’s a rather illogical cap: why would a man whose body is growing younger be afflicted by an impairment brought about specifically by the effects of aging? Button’s full of such holes and unconvincing elements. Why does the U-boat only send up one man to fire a machine gun? What does Benjamin do with Button’s Buttons for all those years between his father’s death and his selling the company? Why doesn’t anyone notice this miracle of nature? Why would Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war be broadcast unedited on a Russian radio station? Why don’t Daisy and Benjamin share the rest of their generation’s disdain for grooving to the Beatles?

Fincher’s oeuvre, whether he’s going for punkish anarchism (Fight Club, 1999), scifi dystopia (Alien 3, 1992), or nihilistic horror (Se7en, 1995), ultimately seems the result of less of an actual guiding intelligence but rather an overarching pseudo-aesthetic that stands in for one. Before Zodiac (2007), his films were composed of flashy images attached to material that’s always on the level of a talented teenager’s first effort at an underground graphic novel. Zodiac tried for gritty procedural, but finally took refuge in its own wizardry and avoided really entering the dread of the unexplained. Fincher has not here achieved a new emotionalism, but simply swapped his shallow macho attitude for another—an affectation of rusticated, sepia-hued sentimentality.

Tim Burton’s similar Big Fish (2003) was derided, but it was a superior film, because it presented in a more dialectic fashion the urge to explore reality through metaphor, and presented boldly the moment when its fantasist hero confronted his inability to escape mortality. Albert Finney lolling despairingly in the bath with the wife he adores, betrays, and is bound to lose, is less cosy and far more to the point. Fincher tries for poetic tragedy, and instead comes perilously close to Norman Rockwellian schlock. The film is a solid wall of eventually tiresome fakery, endless CGI sunsets and snowstorms. Sainted voiceovers proliferate. Like Zodiac, it flinches from its natural ending in a bottomless abyss. Fincher is the kind of director to whom reality is an inconvenience that can always be digitally repaired. Aiming for transcendence, he achieves only a diverting Hollywood weeper—The Notebook (2004) with a gimmick. Finally The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for all its self-underlining pretences, is no work of art: it’s Hollywood at its most troublingly self-important.