David Fincher’s new film begins by establishing it’s framing sequence. An elderly woman lies dying in a hospital bed, a storm raging outside the window and her worried adult daughter by her side. The old woman tells a fable-like story about a clockmaker, grieving the loss of his son in the first World War, who builds a large public timepiece that runs backward. The daughter, perhaps perplexed that her mother can’t find something more pertinent to discuss with her dwindling time, is then instructed to pull a scrapbook-cum-journal from a suitcase and start reading, which finally brings us to the main story. But before I get further mired in fussy details, let us cut to the main point.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a dreadful movie.
The thing that makes Benjamin’s case so curious is that he essentially ages backwards. He is born in 1918, an infant who has the appearance and many of the physical ailments–arthritis, cataracts–associated with an eighty-year-old man. As he grows up, he grows commensurately younger. He appears to be in his seventies as boy, in his sixties as a teenager, and so on. The fanciful premise comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name, though I suspect it was broadly adapted for this film. I’m not sure what intricate truths about humanity Mr. Fitzgerald may have wrenched from this bit of trickery, but in the film version it’s little more than a gimmick.
Screenwriter Eric Roth has signed his name to many different films, good and (spectacularly) bad, since 1994, but it is his handiwork from that year that is most often cited in discussion of Benjamin Button. That’s in part, no doubt, to the fact the film in question, Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, won Roth an Oscar. But there are also some key similarities that invite the comparison. Both films feature central characters that are primarily defined by a single trait that be seen as an affliction, and both film’s chart those characters across several decades, often finding cute ways to connect them to the more notable events of specific eras in American life. Identifying a key difference between the two screenplays illustrates why Button is a ruinous endeavor. Every incident in Gump was influenced by the character’s low I.Q. His successes could be directly traced to the simple way he saw the world, and the logic, focus and kindness that flowed from it. With a couple exceptions that largely boil down to confusion during first impressions, there’s very little in the parade of encounters in Benjamin Button that is reliant, or shaped in any way, by the title character’s uncommon aging process. He serves on a tugboat in World War II, has an affair with a woman he meets in a Russian hotel, perseveres in a long-gestating romance with a childhood friend. Over and over again, scenes play out with only marginal differences than if the character were, say, a thirty-year-old who looked like a thirty-year-old.
That is partially due to the character being so sketchily drawn that there is almost no personality there. Certainly, there’s nothing in his behavior or outlook to indicate an age at odds with his deceptive features. He’s not a wrinkled, decrepit person fueled by innocence and wonderment, or a wise soul rich with experience in a youthful body. He blandly exists, and that is all. David Fincher gets to show off how adroitly he can incorporate a heavily C.G.I.-enhanced character into a live-action film. Other than that, it’s hard to find much purpose or value to Benjamin Button as a character, a concept or a conceit.
What’s left is the central romance, which could very well stand as one of the dullest ever committed to film. If Pitt’s Benjamin Button has no discernible personality, Cate Blanchett’s Daisy can only best that by one unpleasant attribute: a selfish brattiness that carries her from bossy childhood to self-absorption as a celebrated ballet dancer to her deathbed where she has toted a suitcase full of secrets to reveal to her saddened daughter in the most uncomfortable way possible. I don’t adhere to the notion that characters need to be likable to be interesting, but it would be nice if she had an extra layer or two. But that doesn’t fit into the film’s simplistic worldview, where tragic romances are the height of beauty, even if it’s only the completely absence of any sense whatsoever in the characters involved that keeps the romance tragic.
Finally, it should be noted that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has one more blatant transgression against good taste. The storm that builds and bangs and blows on the other side of Daisy’s hospital room window is Hurricane Katrina approaching New Orleans, its full wrath as yet unrealized. Like nearly everything else in the film, this detail offers nothing. No insight, no symbolic weight, no emotional resonance, nothing. It is set dressing, as insignificant as the color of an extra’s bow tie. Reducing Hurricane Katrina to a throwaway enhancement of the drama, like a lightning crash when someone says something ominous in a fifties horror film, is cheap and thoughtless. Cheap and thoughtless, sadly, is fully characteristic of the entire film.
(cross-posted from Jelly-Town!)