CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, THE (director: David Fincher; screenwriters: Eric Roth/based on a screen story by Mr. Roth and Robin Swicord/from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald; cinematographer: Claudio Miranda; editors: Kirk Baxter/Angus Wall; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy), Taraji P. Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline), Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button), Elias Koteas (Monsieur Gateau), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Jared Harris (Captain Mike), Phyllis Somerville (Grandma Fuller), Lance Nichols (Preacher), Rampai Mohadi (African bushman), Elle Fanning (Daisy at 12); Runtime: 167; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Kathleen Kennedy/Frank Marshall/Cean Chaffin; Paramount Pictures; 2008)
“A far-fetched fairy-tale about the freakish birth of an infant who was born as an old man and who ages from birth in reverse.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Taken from a whimsical F. Scott Fitzgerald 25 page story (which in turn was inspired by a Mark Twain story), that tells a far-fetched fairy-tale about the freakish birth of an infant who was born as an old man and who ages from birth in reverse–going from an elderly man and regressing through the years to a doomed infancy. Fitzgerald meant the modest story to be used to make some social commentaries of society in the early 20th century.
David Fincher (“Fight Club”/“Zodiac”/“Panic Room”) uses the gimmicky plot to make a grandiose Hollywood epic allowing him to exploit his film-making trickery and to extend the slight story, with the aid of writer Eric Roth’s own story, into an interminably long and overblown one that takes solace in its facile observations about life and the American historical experience in the early part of the 20th-century and in the emotional pangs over loss, as seen through the wide-eyes of the undeveloped Benjamin (who could easily be mistaken for Gump, except this film is too ponderous to pull off an Oscar it dearly seeks). It offers the same blank observations of life as do the blank facial expression of its freakish hero, keeping the movie emotionally distant and unaffecting even as the body count keeps adding up. Its long laundry-list detailing the life of a cipher like Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) with history used as a background and observed through the eyes of its limited hero, reminds me most of the structural way “Forrest Gump” was filmed (which was also written by Roth). Though based in both the New Orleans after the Great War and the one in the 21st century that was devastated by the Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the story line ventures off to such faraway places as the open sea, Russia and India without doing justice to any of these places.
It begins in New Orleans on the day of Hurricane Katrina and the prosthetic-ally aged octogenarian Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is dying in a hospital bed and her middle-aged daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) is reading her the diary of her good friend Benjamin Button. That’s an excuse for a flashback to the boisterous celebration in New Orleans of the American victory in WW I in 1918, on the day Benjamin’s mother dies giving birth to him and his wealthy button manufacturer father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), is horrified that his infant son looks like an elderly man in his eighties with cataracts and wrinkled skin and he thereby abandons the monstrous baby on the steps of a nursing home. The infant is given his name and a home by the golden-hearted religious black attendant Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who adopts him and the man-child is raised with the genteel old folks in the home who have come there to die. Queenie is accepted as his mother and the old folks accept him as one of their own, and share with him their wisdom and stories. School is out of the question since he looks so old, so his life lessons are learned by those he meets at the home. A wealthy withdrawn woman teaches him to play the piano, a bon vivant African pygmy bushman fills his head with exotic stories and for comic relief a rube with a memory disorder keeps telling him that he was hit by lightening seven different times and was able to live. The only downer to this happy existence is that he keeps losing his elderly friends through death. The upside is that he goes from being in a wheelchair to walking normally; that is, until he returns to his infancy.
In 1930 Benjamin, who looks 70 but is mentally an adolescent, meets the adolescent Daisy Fuller (Elle Fanning), the granddaughter of one of the residents at the home, and they form a close friendship that they will maintain for the rest of their life even when apart (think postcards!).
At 17 Benjamin finds menial work on a tugboat run by the colorful tattooed, boozing and whoring Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who gets Benjamin laid in the Big Easy bordello for the first time and takes him to Russia. In Murmansk, Benjamin has caviar and his first real love affair, a brief one, with the married wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy diplomat. This affair couldn’t be more tedious, as it wastes the talents of Swinton–a part most lesser actresses could have handled. During WW II the tugboat is made part of the navy and many of the crew get killed in action when attacked by a Nazi U-boat, but Benjamin survives. After the war in 1945 Benjamin returns to Queenie in New Orleans and meets his lonely apologetic father who explains why he abandoned him, which doesn’t anger Benjamin (speaking about Gump!). He also meets the New York-based 23-year-old now renown ballerina, Daisy (Cate Blanchett, made younger through the film’s innovative digital film-making process), visiting New Orleans to perform. But she has a dancer boyfriend, so Benjamin retreats. When Daisy gets hit by a car in Paris and her leg is so damaged that she can never dance again, he joins her in Paris and they reunite their friendship. It results in her giving birth to Caroline, but realizing his inevitable physical degeneration to an infant stage Benjamin graciously splits and gives his daughter a chance to be raised by a father who can be there for her. Daisy soon marries a kindly widower and after 13 years apart, the now younger than her Benjamin visits on the sly briefly to check and see if things are alright.
This fantasy drama only works if you can be overwhelmed with blandness, superficiality and tears, and don’t mind that this is no longer Fitzgerald but the plodding mawkish story of Roth. To the film’s further discredit, it has a white baby raised by a black adoptive mother during the Jim Crow days in the South and never so much as says a word about race–sweeping any such disturbing realities under the rug in order to give us a confusing soft-boiled pic that can never get really curious about its curious case to make this lengthy story worth telling except as a curio for the middle-brow. I wonder what someone genuinely subversive like Douglas Sirk could have done with such out-of-the-box material instead of Fincher’s futile attempt to emulate the cloying Steven Spielberg’s populist approach to film-making of mixing a little bit of art with a whole lot of commercialism, techie things and large lumps of sugar.
REVIEWED ON 12/26/2008 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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