by HELEN GEIB
How well you like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will depend to a great extent on your tolerance for framing stories, voiceover narration, and fortune-cookie philosophizing, elements that singly and in combination make up a very large part of the film’s inordinately long running time.
The screenplay is by Eric Roth, the screenwriter of Forrest Gump. The similarities between the two films are manifold and inescapable. However, although Benjamin Button very closely resembles the earlier film, it diverges from it in some significant respects. The differences are instructive in understanding why this second version of the story has little of the superficial but undeniable entertainment value of its predecessor.
The film begins in a New Orleans hospital where the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies dying while the tempest of Hurricane Katrina rages outside. Daisy asks her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read aloud the handwritten memoir of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). The main events of his incredible life are related in an extended flashback narrated by Pitt in the guise of Benjamin recounting his story in the words of his journal. The flashback constitutes the bulk of the film, though it is subject to periodic interruptions by the framing story in which Daisy contributes her reminiscences and Caroline is inevitably revealed as Benjamin’s daughter. Following the memoir’s cliffhanger conclusion, the flashback picks back up accompanied by Daisy’s narration, terminating in a final return to the framing story.
Along with its basic narrative structure, Benjamin Button adopts its model’s linchpin plot device: its hero is born different from other people and that difference determines a unique and remarkable life. Benjamin is born old, or to be more precise, mentally he ages normally, but physically he ages in reverse; as an infant, he bears the decrepitude of extreme age, and as an old man, he is reduced to the utter dependence of infancy. This potentially fascinating set-up is trivialized, a gimmick to anoint Benjamin as the eternal outsider.
Roth used Forrest Gump’s peculiar uniqueness to move him through a series of absurd, yet somehow still credible participatory encounters with watershed moments in American post-War history. Benjamin in contrast, is a fantasy character occupying a borderline fantasy world. This can easily be justified on a mechanical level: how else to explain a man who lives backwards, yet never lands on either the Tonight Show or the dissecting table at a secret government facility? However, it has unfortunate consequences for a film set on making big statements about Life, a purpose signaled by the portentous suggestiveness of Benjamin’s birth on Armistice Day and Daisy’s death the day the levees break.
Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button share a proclivity for aphorisms. Forrest’s Life Lessons were grounded in real experiences gained living with real people in the real world, the delivery leavened– crucial to making it palatable– with considerable humor and a disarming unselfconsciousness. Benjamin’s closest relationships are, like the world he moves through, a product of fantasy; his exceptionalism is an avenue of escape from the real world’s responsibilities and mundane interludes. He is as humorless as the film and eternally self-conscious, defined by his consuming fixation with his bizarre condition.
Was I out of sympathy with the film because I was not persuaded by Benjamin and Daisy’s love story, or was I not persuaded by the love story because I was out of sympathy with the film? Whatever the answer to that riddle, where the film saw Tragic Romance in a tale of star-crossed lovers, I saw two people who were offered numerous opportunities to be together and consistently chose to be apart. Benjamin’s consummate self-centeredness reduces his Grand Renunciation to an especially creative excuse for a man’s abandonment of his family.
The quality of the behind-the-camera filmmaking helmed by director David Fincher is out of all proportion to the quality of the filmed material. The film marshals the tremendous degree and depth of artistry and technical skill that is only possible in a major Hollywood production. Benjamin Button is a wonderfully beautiful and accomplished work at its surface; the flashback one gorgeous image after another. The art design, costuming, and production design are all phenomenal. The gradual de-aging of Pitt and corresponding aging of Blanchett is an extremely impressive technical achievement.
1 1/2 stars