The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

benjaminbuttonI have had a few moments when a film hit me in a way the filmmakers had not intended.  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes a close, pondering, and artful look at mortality, and while the film urged me more and more to think about death, I kept drifting to thoughts of childhood—something Benjamin never really gets to experience. 

(beware spoilers)

In a hospital room in New Orleans, an elderly woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) endures her last moments on the eve of Hurricane Katrina’a fateful landfall, watched over by her daughter (Julia Ormond).  Daisy, weak from old age, asks her daughter to read from a small book tucked away in her belongings.  These are the memoirs of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), born under unusual circumstances on the night the First World War ended. 

Amid the raucous celebration in the streets of New Orleans, Benjamin’s mother dies in child birth, and his father, upon witnessing the unusual circumstances of his son’s birth, ditches the child on the steps of a hospice home in a fit of desperation.  Benjamin the baby looks old and wrinkled, crippled by arthritis and cataracts, and does not appear to have enough life in him to make more than a few days.  Queenie, the lady that runs the care center, takes him in and cares for him.  Overtime, the plot device we all know from the trailer makes itself known—Benjamin ages in reverse. 

At the home, Benjamin learns to read, feed himself, and eventually walk (during a Pentecostal healing service, no less).  Aided by Brad Pitt’s voiceover, we learn of Benjamin’s awareness that death resides close by the residents of the home, and the story’s central theme receives the beginning of a thoughtful, quiet development within the lives of the elderly. 

I’d be remiss to mention that young Benjamin (who looks like really old Benjamin) eventually meets the granddaughter of one of these residents—a spirited redhead named Daisy. 

Benjamin’s story unfolds against episodic tales that are supposed to show his growth as a human being, and perhaps enlighten us as to the quality of his character.  And while the film represents significant achievements in visual effects and directorial talent, the story lacks enough substance to avoid using its premise as a crutch. 

As anyone can guess, Benjamin and Daisy frequently pass in and out of each other’s lives, and the audience knows early on to expect these two to meet somewhere in the middle of their emotional journey when they reach the same approximate age.  Yet the movie avoids most of the more compelling implications of Benjamin’s unusual circumstances, the biggest being the question of what shape his relationship with Daisy will take once he reaches the appearance of a teen or adolescent. 

It’s a compelling question that never gets an answer.  Benjamin ages in reverse in appearance only—in soul and mind, he endures the very same stages of life you and I endure.  Once he regresses to the appearance of adolescence, he’s stricken with a form of Alzheimer’s—he has little memory of the life he led prior, and his behavior more closely resembles the senility of those residents with whom he had initially grown up. 

The film’s final acts offer some uncomfortable meditations on mortality, and perhaps resonate the strongest (more on that in a moment).  Getting there, however, you have to muddle through two hours of empty, unfulfilling narrative.  Setting the “present day” of the story on the eve of Hurricane Katrina carries little, if any, thematic weight.  The script offers whimsical, poetic moments that play beautifully, but never mature into full thematic tissue that connects the larger story. 

In the film’s opening moments, for example, we’re told of an old and blind clockmaker whose son had died in World War I.  He’s commissioned at the end of the war to build a grand clock for a new train station in New Orleans, and at its unveiling, we learn that he built the clock to run backward.  “I made it this way,” the clockmaker says, “so that perhaps, the boys who were lost in the war might stand and go home again…home to farm, to work, have children, to live long, full lives.” 

And that’s the last you hear from the old clockmaker.  His clock appears and receives attention here and there, but that’s about it.  And an episode rich in subtext ends, five minutes into the film, never to be revisited.  Shame, really—I kind of wanted to see that movie. 

By the time credits roll, we’re left with more of a figment of Benjamin than an actual character sketch.  He comes to rest as a flat, unbending hinge up which the rest of the cold narrative turns.  The gravest flaw emerges over Benjamin’s relationships to his two lady loves—an American representative’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and the lovely Daisy—and neither ever deals an honest hand to the audience.  John Nolte, who blogs at Dirty Harry’s Place, makes the best observation when he writes that, “This idea that adultery liberates and rejuvenates or is somehow acceptable and without consequences between two people who can’t be together has moved beyond offensive and straight into boring.”

Cate Blanchett perhaps deserves the highest praise for her portrayal of essentially three roles.  At first impetuous and naïve, Daisy grows into a thoughtful, mature adult, and finally into a venerable old woman, fiercely dedicated to her love as he fades out of existence.  The final, touching moments of an old Daisy cradling an infant Benjamin rocked me to my very core. 

Before heading out to see the movie, I spent significant time watching my 19-month-old son play, running back and forth down the hall, laughing and screaming in full delight for no other reason than that he could.  An early moment of the film shows young Benjamin (then the appearance of a frail 75 or 80-years-old) peering down the steps of the old folks home to watch children play. It occurred to me, someplace down deep, that Benjamin’s unusual circumstances had never really allowed him the opportunity to be a kid.  There I saw and felt a real tragedy.  And it crushed me. 

I have no clue as to whether dir. David Fincher had ever intended to move his audience to such a place.  But it impressed upon me the vital, deep inherent value of childhood, and left me in tears knowing Benjamin never laughed as full and as rich as a toddler can at the joy of something as simple as running. 

Though a profound technical achievement, the film never reaches the depth such a premise could, and should, fulfill.  Film is a unique medium in its ability to engage an audience, and while I do appreciate the experience, getting there was a trip I do not want to retake, and the success of a myth lies in the enjoyment of its retelling.


2 Responses to “<i>The Curious Case of Benjamin Button</i> (2008)”

  1. 1 coffee January 17, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    i was pleasantly surprised to find out that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the short story upon which Benjamin Button (the movie) was based, then mention this in the opening credits

  1. 1 If you see one version of Forrest Gump this year… « The Fuming Pew Trackback on January 20, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: