Ever wish you were three hours younger?
Ambitious and rambling, lacking in narrative theme, director David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button never lives up to its novel premise but collapses instead into a mass of style over substance, eventually becoming what might be the biggest major studio disappointment of the year. Expanded from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (part of a cluster of magical realism stories the Great Gatsby author wrote virtually on a lark) by Forrest Gump adapter Eric Roth and chick flick auteur Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club), the film seemingly wants to be a fairy tale about the ephemeral nature of youth and the privilege of life itself. If only it could get out of its own myopic way to say something – anything – on those worthwhile subjects. In three glacier-paced hours, that never once happens.
The story’s basic conceit is promising enough: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born on Armistice Day 1918, as his home city of New Orleans celebrates the end of the First World War. A wheezing, arthritic infant, after his mother dies in childbirth his father (Jason Flemyng) abandons him to an old-age home where he’s raised by the home’s kindly caretaker Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her Shakespeare-quoting suitor (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). But Benjamin is a special child, growing younger with each passing day. In time, he befriends the granddaughter of one of the other residents, a young woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who’s precocious and charming in the way that only fictitious Southern girls named Daisy ever are. As Benjamin reaches adulthood (though appearing to be in his late 60s), he signs on to work on a tugboat led by Captain Mike (Jared Harris), a slurring, tattooed braggart who takes the young/old Benjamin under his wing.
Much of the film’s second hour is devoted to showing Benjamin’s travels around the world, including a tragic clash with a German U-Boat during World War II and a love affair with the wife of a British diplomat (Tilda Swinton.) But despite the rich material for reflection, the rambling script never arrives at context for the formative events of Benjamin’s life. One thing happens and then another. Pitt never communicates anything to the audience – somewhat understandable, considering the strata of makeup on his face- but the events themselves are seldom shown as particularly consequential. He narrates the events in a serviceable if not completely authentic New Orleans drawl, but a last-minute reminiscence isn’t enough to put the previous marathon of scenes into complete perspective – nor should it have to do as much.
Where plot and story fail, the movie attempts to pack scenes with a broad assembly of characters – in fact that’s largely the reason so much of the film comes away feeling mannered and pretentious: the relentless parade of capital-C characters that never quite earn their worth in the story. Was Captain Mike a surrogate father figure? Who was the unnamed woman that taught Benjamin to love the piano? Why was Daisy so taken with the strange “old” man that roomed with her grandmother? Whereas some insight into their lives might have offered counterpoint to Benjamin’s own strange fate, there is simply a procession of oddballs wandering around as Pitt stares in wonder at their colorful personalities.
Pitt and Blanchett, as the time-crossed lovers who “meet in the middle” during their 40s, are appealing enough, often bringing dignity to scenes that otherwise would prove almost laughably implausible. The late-night, moodily lit scene at the concert pavilion, in which Daisy flings herself at Benjamin only to find rejection, is one such contrivance, the kind of preposterous episode commonly found in overheated romance novels and faux-literary historic fiction. Not a crucial flaw in and out itself (not every scene in three hours needs to be a winner), it’s nevertheless indicative of one of the film’s biggest problems: plot tediously triumphs over character time and again, so that each character’s own motivations remain doggedly opaque.
The film was famously shot in New Orleans, and the framing sequence depicting a dying Daisy relating her life with Benjamin to their daughter (Julia Ormond) includes a subplot dramatizing Hurricane Katrina’s cataclysmic march towards the city. Unfortunately the filmmakers’ understanding of New Orleans’ history and culture is only four blocks wide and one half-inch deep. New Orleans to them, as so typically happens in Hollywood movies, consists only of the same musty street in the French Quarter and a few blocks close to the bend of the Mississippi River, the intersections of Carrolton and St. Charles Avenues seen in the city’s faintly desperate tourism commercials. That the film manages to set much of its action in the 1960s but avoids even a single mention of the Civil Rights Movement (or its aftermath of ”white flight” and middle-class abandonment, slow-burning events which in their way devastated the city just as much as Katrina) despite Benjamin’s racially blended upbringing is also glaringly dubious, and possibly a little offensive.
Fincher has made a career of challenging himself with his films, especially 2006′s masterful Zodiac, so it’s doubly problematic to see such an unfocused and ultimately pointless exercise in star vehicling bear his name. Moreover, there are none of the themes of identity and the elusive nature of truth present here as exist in Zodiac as well as Fight Club and even The Game. Normally a meticulous craftsman, his work here is loose, unfocused, indifferent. Perhaps the subject material was too much to convey on film – Benjamin’s reverse-ageing prods many more questions then the film provides explanation – or the top-heavy dimensions of the script were too shaky to use as the foundations of a cohesive work. But for a story about time itself, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button doesn’t reward its audience for its investment of such. Unlike Benjamin, none of us walk out of the theatre younger than we were before.