The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
A return visit to a movie can sometimes be a sobering reminder that one initially respected a picture rather than really rated it. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one such, where I expressed admiration for David Fincher’s achievement – of course, it was Fincher, wasn’t it? – but have struggled since to locate what exactly it was about it I held in high regard. Now, it’s quite obvious. If I held it in high regard, even nominally, it was because it was made to be held in high regard. It was positioned as an awards darling (and duly received a slew of nominations). What it was not, however, was very good in its own right.
Playing fast and loose with F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story – dad doesn’t give Benjamin away, and his son goes on to take care of him, with a life involving fighting in the Spanish-American War and attending Harvard – there was doubtless a lure of the kudos a previous shaggy dog, Forrest Gump had received (they share screenwriter Eric Roth). First optioned in the mid-80s, it went through Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Spike Jonze and Gary Ross before landing with Fincher, while stars attached included Martin Short, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. I could see Jonze and Charlie Kaufman doing something with it (although, the latter might have made it too damn weird), but frankly pretty much anything, even unholy dollops of saccharine, would have been preferable to the sheer ponderousness with which Fincher imbues the proceedings.
He’s the big problem going in, as this just isn’t his cup of tea. For all his meticulousness, he is not a prestige pic director, as Mank recently underlined. Both may have secured Best Picture Oscar nods, but they are, largely, dramatically inert. I might suggest the avoidance of the sentimentality inherent in the idea of a man aging backwards, losing all awareness of his life and loves in his last few/ first few years, is admirable, but the damaging aspect is that Fincher and emotion just don’t go together, unless it’s a consequence of naturally tense or caustic scenarios (it’s the same with humour; Fight Club is frequently hilarious, but every time Fincher returns to the struck-by-lightning vignette here, you can see the tumbleweeds suffusing the screen).
He allows the picture to unfold at a snail’s pace, surely convinced that its inherently winning charm will be quite sufficient to bring an audience along for the ride, but the consequence is that you feel like you’ve been watching for two-and-a-half hours at the eighty-minute mark. With the same time again left on the clock. The raising of Benjamin in a New Orleans nursing home (by caretakers Taraji P Henson and Mahershala Ali, both highly sympathetic) is suggestive of The Jerk played straight, and that same, unfailingly moribund earnestness kills any chance at a lightness of touch. Whatever else one might say about Guantanamo Hanks-starrers Big and Forrest Gump, and there’s a lot, they weren’t content simply to stew in their own juices (both bear some thematic comparison to this).
Fincher just isn’t lyrical – although, ironically, right at the end, so much too late, “His some people…” montage almost achieves a sliver of the poetic – so his attempts at Frank Darabont or Bob Zemeckis honest, matter-of-fact faux resonance are mere mechanical approximations, empty of feeling. The result isn’t bad, but its austere, functionally indulgent. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an AI’s dream of magical realism. That extends to the visuals, soaked in a blue-green, digital sheen-affected film stock; it comes as a shock when there are a few shots that seem to be natural light. The effects too: they’re often quite impressive, only occasionally suggestive of a distracting degree of uncanny valley – and old/ young Benjamin is a bit too resonant of George Burns to sit comfortably – but you cumulatively feel the facsimile nature of what you’re watching, that the picture itself is as emotionally and spiritually distant and intangible as the figure at its centre.
That’s probably where the biggest comparison to Forrest Gump lies, in a protagonist who diffidently passes through life, ever philosophical and considered, contemplative rather than rash, ultimately unaffected. Benjamin isn’t an idiot, of course, and could never be called naïve, but he’s resolutely unspoiled and unsullied, no matter what he does or encounters. The concern presenting itself here is that you need an actor who can fill that space, and Pitt wasn’t it (he nabbed an Oscar nom, but so what?) Pitt in Meet Joe Black underplaying mode was not his finest pose, and there’s the additional flaw that he’s no kind of compelling narrator. His uninflected, uninvolved tone is an additional incentive to avoid seeing the lengthy proceedings through to their end.
Most damagingly of all, there’s absolutely nothing between Pitt and Blanchett as his great love Daisy. Not only is there no spark, but for all her feted thespian status, Cate absolutely is not a romantic lead (go on, name a movie where she is, and you care about who she’s involved with). Button gives her a chance to do a lot of “acting”; right from the off, she’s shrouded in old-age makeup, so edging Kate in Titanic. But try as she might, she can’t do young, innocent, impulsive; she’s glacial. You feel nothing for the relationship between Daisy and Benjamin while they’re in it, so you feel even less when it goes away.
In terms of their bond too, it feels to me like a cop out that Benjamin, having maturely recognised “You can’t raise both of us”, should return as a young man – the ex-Ms Pitt as an idealised version of himself, every woman’s irresistible lust object – and then reunite so Daisy can care for him in exactly the way he said she shouldn’t. Sure, you can’t account for it with his developing immaturity, and I’m sure that’s the argument, but if he was sufficiently mature back then, he would have set safeguards against this, including later care provisions (with some very broad-minded carers: perhaps he should have travelled to the Himal-iars).
If you subtract the easy – at least, it should be – dive of the love story, what exactly are you left with? Derek Malcolm’s verdict feels most resonant in this regard, that “never at any point do you feel that there’s anything more to it than a very strange story traversed by a film-maker who knows what he is doing but not always why he is doing it”. What does The Curious Case of Benjamin Button have beyond the gimmick? Do you come away thinking about anything any differently as a result? Forrest Gump at least boasted some pat homilies and a soaring feather (and some off-the-wall, often at-odds-with-itself thematic undercurrents). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is only really about navigating logistics, and it’s thus entirely fitting that its Oscars came in the technical categories.
Benjamin: But when it comes to the end, you have to let go.
The picture opens with some business about a clock Elias Koteas builds to tell the time backwards, in memoriam to those, like his son, who lost their lives in WWI; in some possibly, possibly not, who cares, magical coincidence, Benjamin is then born on the day of armistice. We’re invited to make a connection, but there’s no actual feeling to latch onto, so it means as much as the hummingbird symbolism (they can fly backwards).
Benjamin delivers more erudite versions of Gump-esque profundities (“Our lives are defined by opportunities. Even the ones we miss”) and tells the tale of cause-and-effect and coincidence to depict the accident that ensures Daisy cannot dance again. But there’s nothing inspirational to glean from this, only a random, immoveable, deterministic universe that is ultimately impenetrable, because it’s out of anyone’s control. This seems to fit with a degree of scorn placed on faith and religion, whereby Queenie attributes Benjamin’s recovery to the charismatic church, but we know it’s his natural “evolution” (underscored by the minister dropping dead on stage from a heart attack).
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything less from Fincher and his godless universe; Benjamin’s is, after all, a scenario ripe for metaphysical cogitation, but instead there’s not a dicky – rather than humming – bird, not even the sop-spirit of the unneutered heart of Forrest Gump. This is a materialist universe, and its aberrations merely confirm the same. Logically, then, since that’s what this is, Benjamin Button should never have even had this life; he ought to have spent the entirety of his existence holed up in Area 52. That’s the abiding mystery – or curiosity – of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Other elements beg interrogation. Fincher may have done this purely as a Spielberg-esque peer-cred bid, but his fascination with the dark side – even as one who ranks neither as Black Hat or White Hat – lends itself to associations and programming tendencies one might reasonably blanche at. What to make of oId/ young Benjamin (twelve years on the inside) falling for seven-year-old Daisy (Elle Fanning)? Are we supposed to think such confusion is acceptable (and the same later with a discernible Brad and Maidsen Beaty’s ten-year-old Daisy sitting on the sofa together). It matters not that her mother tells her “You ought to be ashamed of yourself”, because we know as an audience he is innocent… so such confusion is acceptable, if you’re just a boy at heart trapped in an old man’s body? Is that the argument? This is Hollywood, don’t forget, this is their bread and butter. It may not have been Fincher’s intention, but it would be naïve to dismiss such an undercurrent.
There are positives, undoubtedly. Many of the supporting players are strong, particularly Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, regretting leaving his son to the elements, Tilda Swinton as a thing Benjamin has (Swinton’s always good value, of course), and Jared Harris in the Gary Sinise role of the ship’s captain (offering a rather redundant tribute to artistic expression, but still: Harris is having fun).
Maybe, with a different director – this smacks of something Jean-Pierre Jeunet would have made good, or better, on – and with actors who spark chemistry and one invests in, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could have been a movie people still talk about. Instead, it was decently reviewed, roundly recognised during the awards season, and did solid box office. Albeit, while a custom-built prestige picture, it’s debatable if/when it made a profit (it cost a whopping $167m and grossed a little more than twice that, a tag that seriously crippled its chances of unqualified financial success from the get-go). This was Fincher proving he wasn’t all serial killers and psychopaths, but it only managed to prove that he really was.