Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A kind rewind

Benjamin Button takes the easiest route from grave to cradle

Posted on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond
Release Date: 2008-12-24
Rated: PG-13
Genre: Film

A baby closes its eyes and dies. It happens. It happens more than either of us would like to know. Maybe you can shrug it off. But the baby looks vaguely, as much as a baby can, like Brad Pitt. Do you care now? If so, Benjamin Button may just be profound, asshole. Otherwise, this bare-faced Oscar beg is probably best cut into award-show clips, but anything more than the inevitable nods for visual effects and makeup would be a shame.

Loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (as in that’s where the title came from), the New Orleans-set Button follows its title character (Pitt) as he  ages backward through an abridged version of the 20th century. Button, unlike Merlin, travels forward through time, but he begins life as a wrinkled, decrepit infant and grows younger as he gets older. Got it? (Don’t worry: There’s no creepy man-sized baby awaiting you at film’s end.) If not, a present-day narrative frame invoking Hurricane Katrina, an oh-so-subtle metaphorical clock that runs backward, and  Pitt’s intrusive voiceover — delivered in a Cajun accent only slightly more believable than Adam Sandler’s — are all there to hold your hand.

While Fitzgerald developed Button’s character in reverse psychologically as well as physically, Pitt plays him chronologically normal (or relatively so, given the whole reverse-aging thing), throwing terrible-two tantrums as a toddler-size geezer, hitting mid-life crisis when he appears young enough to look cool on a motorcycle, and, ultimately, growing so small and childish that the helpless senility of old age seems less pathetic.

Button is born in 1918 at the end of World War I. His mother dies during childbirth (a sacrifice for which Pitt lamely informs us he is “eternally grateful”), and his father (Flemyng) understandably sees his shriveled, arthritic baby as less miracle than monster and comes close to throwing his shrieking son into the river before deciding on a more poetic alternative: abandoning him at an upscale old-folks home, where he’s adopted by the caretaker (Henson), and  befriended by an eccentric group of retired folks who teach him valuable lessons about life and loss. It’s a quirky Tim Burton film that’s accidentally directed by David Fincher — a Fitzgerald adaptation apparently inspired by Nicholas Sparks and Mitch Albom.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that life must be lived forward but can only be understood when observed in reverse, and Fitzgerald’s excellent story, collected in 1922’s Tales of the Jazz Age, approaches some artistic truths while summarizing the life of its backward-aging protagonist in an alternately funny and heartbreaking 20 or so pages. As a newborn elderly man, Button is forced by his father to act childishly for appearance’s sake, though he’d rather read the newspaper and smoke cigars with his grandfather than go outside and play. He attempts to attend college as a young man in an old man’s body and becomes a decorated hero in the Spanish-American War as a 50-something teenager. He marries a beautiful young girl but becomes less attracted to her aging body as his own wrinkles begin to fade.

The film version achieves much less in its two-and-a-half hours by shaping Button’s bizarre physiology as a star-crossed lover’s dilemma and moving him into post World War I America to make him part of our recent shared history. (How many of today’s moviegoers, for example, have even heard of the Spanish-American War?) Modernizing the story is fairly harmless, but essentially pointless. Curious Case never quite devolves to Forrest Gump’s cultural-touchstone tag — Button fights in World War II, sees a space shuttle launch from his sail boat, and catches the Beatles playing Ed Sullivan, but he doesn’t moon LBJ or report the Watergate burglary — but Button’s passive view of American history never amounts to more than a few visual punchlines.

Reinterpreting the story as a tragic romance becomes more problematic, however. Once it’s been determined that Button is indeed aging in reverse and not simply born old and soon to die (a fact the audience knows before the first frame), the film’s only real conflict is internal. Button is doomed to get progressively younger, watching helplessly while the people he cares about — his friends at the retirement home, his adopted mother — grow old and die. Take out the part about Button getting younger, and our protagonist’s fate is really no different from the average human lot. Desperate to distract us from this nearly nonexistent narrative thread, screenwriters Roth (Munich) and Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha) bounce Button off a string of clichés — loved ones’ deathbeds, a bloody battle that his colorful buddies predictably don’t survive — hoping something resonates. Nothing much does, though. Turns out the reverse-aging gimmick makes a great excuse for some impressive visual effects, but it’s not really a serviceable metaphor for much of anything.

Button’s relationship with rebellious belle Daisy (Blanchett), the granddaughter of one of the nursing-home residents, provides a small semblance of a storyline and an actual conflict: How can Button and Daisy remain together? He’s destined to watch her body wrinkle and sag while he continually sheds his prosthetics and becomes more Brad Pitt-like with every passing year, ultimately dooming Daisy to spending her golden years babysitting. (“One way or another, we all end up in diapers,” she deadpans.) An interesting question, possibly, but the beginning few minutes — in which Daisy lies dying in a New Orleans hospital while her daughter (Ormond) reads aloud from Button’s diary and a certain category-five hurricane blows into town — helpfully telegraph how the rest of this melodrama will play out. Think the Notebook, with James Garner’s half of the screen stuck in rewind. •

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