The key, insurmountable dilemma of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that the character at the center of it all is a study not in dramatic evolution, but inherent passivity; a cipher meant to evoke something deep and meaningful about life and love, but a cipher all the same. As such, he is routinely acted upon, rather than acting; a curious non-entity who no more commands our attention than a piece of furniture. His affliction — born old, aging backwards until he dies an infant — is unique and confounding to be sure, but throughout the oppressively long three-hour running time, it is treated as no more than a gimmick, a device that, if removed to allow the story to be told conventionally, would send audiences running to their cars by the end of the first act. Playing with time can allow filmmakers to transcend the banal and re-conceptualize the tried and true, but here, peeling away the trappings reveals a depressing series of trite life lessons and fortune cookie wisdom that would be grossly insulting had they lacked visual splendor to distract from their obviousness. Eye-popping is never a substitute for genuine, well-earned meaning.
In many ways, Brad Pitt has been asked to perform the impossible: inhabit a character so ill-defined and ill-suited for cinematic expression that he makes no impression whatsoever save the single, extraordinary characteristic that defines his existence. Sure, many human beings come and go in this life that have little to distinguish them at all, but few are asked to tell their stories in this fashion, though most would cheerfully insist upon it. Button’s fate is a sad one, a tragic reversal of life’s usual course, but what do we learn from his tale? Given the wall-to-wall narration, it might be expected that untold ruminations would be the central agenda, but even while driving home from the theater, I could not think of a single one. Life is precious? Nothing meaningful lasts? Treat your loved ones with kindness because one day they’ll be gone? All true in their own way, yes, but I pity anyone who heard them here for the first time. Even at the extreme end where nothing is new under the sun, we are right to demand the self-important to traffic in more than half-baked homilies passed down by our grandmothers.
Lacking any meat on the bones of his character, Benjamin’s emptiness becomes uncomfortably similar to another Eric Roth creation: Forrest Gump. The parallels are obscenely obvious, and one wonders if we can ever follow a single man throughout his life and not be forced to endure such painful connections. Instead of Alabama, we have New Orleans, though the Southern location breeds the usual eccentricities, complete with tent revivals, mysterious healers, and wide-eyed black folk always one step from fainting for the Lawd. Button grows up (as a prune-like midget for much of the beginning scenes) in a rooming house for seniors, so he learns early about death, a fact made ironic by his physical similarities that are in fact lessening by the day. He can relate to these boarders, though only in a superficial sense, as he’s just charting his journey, rather that wrapping up. I’ll give Fincher credit for fostering a sense of time and place (it’s a fantasy, but it feels of its era, rather than distractingly contemporary), but it also felt mannered and cloying, as if they couldn’t wait to introduce the next “big scene” or “Very Important Character.”
It is in this first act where we meet Daisy, the “Jenny” character from Gump who will stand as Benjamin’s unending obsession of idealized love. Typically, stories such as these have central relationships that are meant to inspire and redeem, but upon scrutiny are exposed as lacking any real sense. Benjamin and Daisy spend time together, yes, and, over the course of the film, sail, dine, fuck, and hell, even start a family, but at no time do they feel connected as real people. It all exists in a theoretical realm; words on a page and not the stuff of life. Ah, but they knew each other from childhood, so it is meant to be romantic, perhaps even destined. The film certainly believes that, as nothing is left to chance. We all ride life’s river until we deal with what comes. Certainly, I accept that we often believe we have more power over our lives than we actually do, but it’s just as absurd to subscribe so strongly to the pre-ordained that we start to dismiss the slings and arrows as inevitable. One of the film’s best sequences demonstrates how random events, accumulated just so, can lead to tragedy, but as quickly as the scene plays out, it is undermined by the absurd notion that the end result was meant to be.
Despite parting (Daisy runs off to New York to be a dancer, returning to New Orleans now and again to demonstrate what a whore she’s become — again, more similarities to Jenny, who chose participation rather than the sidelines, and paid for it by getting AIDS), we know that it is only a matter of time before they are reunited. In the meantime, Benjamin takes a job on a shrimp, er, tugboat, which allows him to meet Captain Mike, the first in a series of odd ducks who quack along offering picaresque derring-do and faux wisdom. Benjamin’s adventures on the boat, especially once they are co-opted by the military at the onset of World War II, provide some stunning visuals, but the horrors of war have about as much effect on Mr. Button as losing a sock in the wash. He reveals nothing, and as such, emotional resonance remains always at arm’s length. Just like Gump was some retard who happened not to have his head blown off in Vietnam (war was indistinguishable from table tennis), Benjamin survives battle without learning a goddamn thing from the experience. Why have our hero endure such madness unless he could extract something from it? There’s a reason we don’t write biographies of people who never leave the fucking house. Drama requires — how shall I say this — drama. Without perspective, it’s just a meaningless ticking of the clock.
Before the brief wartime escapade, Benjamin spends time in a Russian hotel, where he encounters Elizabeth, the wife of a British spy. They ritualize their meetings every evening, talking and drinking tea, though eventually carrying on a highly charged affair. This relationship leads to Benjamin’s first declaration of love, though he wouldn’t be the first to confuse an orgasm for the deep bonds of affection. Again, it’s all very well-crafted and staged, but to what end? So that Benjamin would one day see Elizabeth on television having fulfilled a lifelong dream to swim the English Channel? The interlude again reveals the recurring weakness of the story: what we have here are cloistered set-pieces, not narrative building blocks that add up to anything substantive. Benjamin meets this person, returns home for a spell, moves on again, and before long he’s riding a motorcycle in the hills. Stringing together experiences…..hmm, but isn’t that just like life? Yes, I can see that point, but mere experiences do not a movie make. Again, everyone has them, even the bed-ridden, but that doesn’t mean they should all be filmed and injected with epic scope. The narration could have helped matters by providing greater detail of Benjamin’s inner workings, but even there, it could have backfired by subtracting wisdom in favor of heavy-handedness.
If there’s a greater offender than Button’s colorless persona, it’s the shockingly inept framing device, which repeats the tired cliché that the only way we ever learn about our loved ones is through the dying process in a hospital bed. In reality, most people are incoherent or unconscious by that time, but in the movies, the final moments are always the perfect occasion to reveal secrets and whisper delicious tidbits about life’s mysteries. Here, Daisy is breathing her last, and she presents Benjamin’s diary to her daughter, which she is asked to read aloud, thereby leading to the narration that runs throughout the story. Each time we come back to the present, we are forced to endure Daisy’s labored breathing, the daughter’s concerned looks, and the clinical clucks of an attending nurse or two. Needless to say, we also learn that the daughter is — brace yourselves — also Benjamin’s daughter, which will surprise only those who haven’t seen a movie since the introduction of sound. Why the screenplay insisted on this awkward movement from then to now will never be known, but even that pales next to the inclusion of a Hurricane Katrina backdrop. Not fatal, I suppose, just glaringly unnecessary. In a film meticulously constructed to avoid historical allusions (one of the few fortunate differences from Gump), it’s jarring that much more.
Though I hated Synecdoche, New York for its pretensions, I now realize that as a companion piece with Benjamin Button, it achieves superiority only in the sense that it took the intellectual route into life’s confounding nature, rather than wallow in cheap sentiment. Benjamin Button does exactly that whenever possible, compounded by a sadistic over-length. Hell, it even updates Gump’s feather motif with a hummingbird, chosen for no reason other than it makes for a striking CGI visual. I imagine the reaction to this film will exist at the extremes, and indifference will be impossible. If you buy it as a fable, and are amenable to such tales, it is likely to leave you with warmed cockles, or something of that sort. I, on the other hand, was left cold; disgusted at times, but more often numbed by its flawed assumptions. Most of all, if you’re going to insist that Benjamin’s life has something to offer us all, remember that few can spend so damned much of it hopping from place to place in search of meaning, pausing only to send another postcard.