The Curious Life of Benjamin Button

January, 2009, Drama

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director David Fincher’s oeuvre carries no hint of the capacity he displays here for unabashed sentimentality bathed in some of the most glorious images to be found on the screen in recent memory. This skillful chronicler of the human capacity for violence in nearly all its modes (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) has fashioned a storyline by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth into what first appears to be a profound reflection on the meaning of life, but which on closer examination turns out to be an exercise in soft-core existentialism dressed up as cinematic eye-candy. Yet for all its Peggy Lee-ish “Is That All There Is” ennui, the film’s so exquisitely fashioned and gorgeous to look at that you just have to be impressed.

The plot’s conceit is simple; what if a life was lived in reverse, beginning with old age and ending in infancy? Working with nearly 3 dozen credited makeup artists, Fincher one-ups Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray by introducing Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) as a shriveled, ancient foundling left on the steps of a New Orleans’s nursing home in the fall of 1918 who morphs backwards as he ages from octogenarian to baby, passing his contemporaries by as they decline and he grows younger. Spending his early life among those who are close to the end of theirs, Benjamin reaches adolescence schooled by a philosophizing African midget, goes to sea in his teens and spends WW II working on a tugboat in service to the U.S. Navy, returning home thereafter to spend the middle and late years of his life within spitting distance of the old- age facility in which he spent his formative years. Along the way, Button’s strange lifecycle is enriched by the presence of three women who make crucial contributions to his development; Queenie (Taraji Henson) the African-American domestic servant who adopts and raises him, Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) the British diplomat’s wife who becomes his first love and Daisy, (Cate Blanchett) the childhood sweetheart who ultimately bears his child. 

These women enter Benjamin’s life as fully-formed individuals with careers and interests of their own; among Benjamin Button’s many wonderful elements is its celebration of strong female characters that enrich the essentially passive Button with their personal strength and determination. If Button leads a uniquely antipodal life, it draws the lion’s share of its purpose and satisfaction from the women who enliven it by making his passage from ancient/newborn to infant/senility suitably engrossing.

Pitt’s an interesting movie star; part Hollywood heartthrob, part serious thespian and perennial grist for the tabloid gossip-mills, the actor delivers a performance made credible largely because of the stunning ability of the film’s technicians to create a face which appears plausibly aged at the film’s beginning and startlingly youthful near its end. That feat of technical wizardry permits Pitt to actually play his character from early-aged childhood until he regresses to age nine years later; this 45 year-old actor’s physical ability to play himself now as a teenager is remarkable on its own terms.

Roth’s screenplay mimics the antebellum style of the Deep South in the early 20th century and Fincher wisely has Pitt apply a soft accent and ambling cadence to both his dialogue and the voice-overs he provides which carry much of the story’s development. But Benjamin’s life-story mainly consists, not of the things he does but what happens to him at various stages in his inverted life, making Pitt’s performance more physically curious than emotionally compelling, resulting in a bland reminder of Tom Hank’s equally insipid Forrest Gump.  

As the ever-so-slightly neurotic British woman who decides to become Button’s mistress, Swinton performs yet another piece of acting magic. She uses her considerable talents to create an indelible portrait of socially-confined, upper-class desire grounded in steel-willed determination. When her Elizabeth records a remarkable physical achievement long after her affair with Button has ended, the audience has been abundantly primed for her accomplishment because the actress so perfectly conveys her character’s carefully honed aggressiveness in the relationship she forges with the starry-eyed, unsophisticated young sailor she takes as her lover. 

Blanchett however, is not outdone by Swinton’s competition; Daisy aspires to a career as a professional dancer and Blanchett rejects Benjamin’s efforts to domesticate her with a chilling, feline calculation. It takes an accident ending her professional aspirations to bring her back to New Orleans and into the persistent arms of the boy she left behind. Their subsequent relationship turns this rambling analysis of life’s passages into a near-gooey romance that undercuts much of the dramatic impact which precedes it, but fortunately, the film’s melancholy final reel puts some starch back into the storyline by tracing Benjamin’s ultimate decline without sugar-coating his final days. 

Despite the director’s considerable visual and story-telling skills, the gorgeous cinematography, the lavishly detailed sets, the excellent performances turned in by his large and varied cast and the film’s consistently handsome production values, The Curious Life of Benjamin Button isn’t nearly as deep and intellectually interesting as its creators intended. For all the supposedly penetrating elements of Button’s topsy-turvy life, the film’s message winds up grounded in a rather shop-worn, post-modern agnostic humanism; life is hard, has no purpose and thus should be experienced as fully as possible until the fates deal you a bewilderingly meaningless death. The movie suggests that making one’s life as well-lived as circumstances permit is the best path to self-fulfillment, but in doing so, Button robs audiences of the possibility of finding much deeper meaning in what possibilities may exist in a life of service to others. Furthermore, is it just possible that the ultimate point of human existence might lie in something/one beyond the grave? For all the attention paid here to star-crossed romantic love as the ultimate goal, there’s little evidence this gorgeous film has much to say that’s worth pondering seriously. Even so, what a candy-store of movie-going delight!  

The verdict? Lovely to look at, delightful to sit through, but in the end, a light-weight philosophical examination of the ineffable.     

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