Opening on Christmas Day, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the result of an unexpected cinematic collaboration between scriptwriter Eric Roth, who penned Forrest Gump, and director David Fincher, whose credits include Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac. Very loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, and starring Brad Pitt as Button, the film is about a life lived in reverse. Born with the physical features of a man in his eighties, Button grows backward into middle age, youth, and infancy. Fincher and Roth turn Button’s peculiar life, at the center of which is his star-crossed love for Daisy (Cate Blanchett), into a vehicle for raising the great questions of the human condition.
Lauded by critics as one of the best films in recent years, Button certainly has the feel of a film that aspires to greatness. Beyond its philosophical probing of issues, it boasts a running time of 176 minutes — fulfilling an indispensable criterion for artistic gravitas in recent years: nearly endless length. The visual effects, requisite for the film version of a story featuring the life of a man who ages in reverse, are indeed stunning; the film’s period detail and use of various locales are nicely realized, even if Brad Pitt’s Cajun accent is predictably unconvincing. Despite all of this, the film’s artistic aspiration is more pretense than success.
The film’s objectives contrast sharply with Fitzgerald’s, whose story is a whimsical look at a very odd life. Fitzgerald, who underscores the “curious” aspects of Button’s life and exploits its comic possibilities, invests Button with no great depth. Button falls in love and marries but soon tires of his aging and increasingly tired wife — hardly the stuff of romantic tragedy.
The film takes Fitzgerald’s basic conceit and channels it through a sort of Forrest Gump plot; it features a character who becomes involved in a series of (mostly disconnected) events, spanning several decades. As with Gump, Button’s peculiar condition gives him a certain detachment from events and from complex human reactions to them. Here, too, a mother’s platitudes are sufficient in a world that looks much more complex than it really is. Here, too, a romance holds the story together. Of course, the romance here has a different appeal precisely because it is Brad Pitt, not Tom Hanks, in the lead role. The film relies upon audience appreciation of Pitt’s good looks to build tension: viewers await the reappearance of an ever-more youthful Pitt as Button retreats in age.
Not content simply to tell Button’s story, Fincher and Roth — perhaps in another nod to Gump — present his story in a series of flashbacks. The film begins in a New Orleans hospital, where Daisy, then an elderly woman, and her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) await Daisy’s imminent death and the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. As she slips in and out of consciousness, her daughter reads from the diary of Benjamin Button. The revelations in the diary have to do with her mother’s lifelong relationship with Button, a relationship previously unknown to the daughter.
The problem here is not just the predictability of the revelations, which viewers will see far in advance. Perhaps the most inexplicable thing about the film concerns the choice to frame the story by reference to Hurricane Katrina. Rumors have it that this was Brad Pitt’s way of bringing attention to ongoing rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. Since Button’s story itself is only incidentally about the city, the Katrina framing device is a huge distraction – one that almost reduces the film’s artistic ambitions to a creative infomercial.
Benjamin’s story begins with a recounting of his birth at the end of World War I. His mother dies in childbirth and his already antique appearance leads his father — who is unwilling to raise a freak — to abandon him on the steps of a kind of old folks’ home. A doctor who examines him there concludes that some children are “not made to live.” But a kindly African-American worker at the home, Queenie (in a marvelous performance by Taraji P. Henson), embraces Benjamin as one of God’s children — even as she observes that Lord has done something very “strange” in this case — and adopts him. As it should, the film gets good comic mileage out of the incongruity between Button’s age and his appearance. Upon first seeing him as a baby, an elderly woman comments, “He looks just like my ex-husband.”
The avuncular looking Benjamin’s childhood friendship with the youthful Daisy (Blanchett) is at once tender and comic — an odd twist on the beauty and the beast theme. Not true love, merely the flow of time itself, transforms the beast into something very fine indeed: Brad Pitt. After parting in childhood, they meet occasionally, and their separate but intersecting lives move toward an inevitable blossoming of love as the two reach adulthood at approximately the same time. “We’re meeting in the middle,” they observe, “we finally caught up with one another.” There is something touching about their romance, especially because the film is fairly restrained in its sentimentality.
The problem is that the film wants to make more of the romance and its circumstances than they merit. It wants to lay bare for us the important things in human life. As Benjamin says at one point, what matters is that “we’ve lived our lives well.” Yet, the film has very little to say, beyond pious platitudes, about what it means to live well. “We all end up in diapers,” is one of the film’s insights into aging.
Again like Gump, Benjamin is passive in the face of events. That befits the film’s central lesson, which has to do with acceptance. That theme is captured in a phrase repeated throughout the film. You can complain about your lot in life and “curse the fates,” but eventually you realize that you just have to “let it go.” Faced with the prospect of a mildly entertaining but pretentious and overlong film, viewers might want to adopt that precept themselves.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.