Button it already
Though Hollywood suits have been trying to make it for decades, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is not a project that cries out to be filmed. Now that it’s finally been turned into a major motion picture, complete with megawatt stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, you have to wonder why everyone bothered. ¶ As enervating as it is long -- and at 2 hours and 47 minutes it is quite long -- this version of the F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy short story is a baffling project, an endurance test of a movie that feels like it was made on a dare. ¶ “Benjamin Button’s” central conceit, the story of a man who ages backward, who is born old and dies an infant, is about the only thing that has been retained from Fitzgerald’s original piece of 1922 whimsy. ¶ Both screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Insider”) and director David Fincher have used that notion as no more than a departure point, a framework on which to hang what feels like a random string of dramatic incidents. That makes “Benjamin Button” play like making the best of an assignment rather than something created out of genuine passion.
Yet passion is part of what this film is supposed to be about, as it tells the decidedly peculiar love story of Benjamin (Pitt) and Daisy (Blanchett), a couple whose romance is constantly thwarted by the fact that Benjamin’s body almost never matches up with his chronological age. Adults who sniffed at the obstacles Bella and Edward faced in “Twilight” get their comeuppance as they’re expected to swallow this equally implausible scenario and proclaim it art.
Even given all those inherent obstacles, “Benjamin Button” would’ve had a better chance of success if it had landed in the hands of a director with more of a facility for telling emotional stories than Fincher, whose films include “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.” No wonder everything feels icy and removed. Giving Fincher this project is like asking the great French humanist director Jean Renoir to do a slasher movie. As my mother used to say, no good will come of this.
As written by Roth (screen story credit goes to him and Robin Swicord), “Benjamin Button” departs almost immediately from Fitzgerald’s story, which had BB born a full-grown old man. That would have been too bizarre, but what the film comes up with has problems of its own.
“Button” begins with a framing device that has a very old and dying Daisy (Blanchett under a lot of makeup) being read to from Benjamin’s diary by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). Placing these scenes in a New Orleans hospital ominously menaced by Hurricane Katrina is but one of the film’s many puzzling choices.
Benjamin’s birth in 1919 deeply disturbs his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), who abandons the child with the face of an ancient on the steps of a nursing home where the generous Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) is in charge. Declaring that the infant may be “as ugly as an old pot, but he’s still a child of God,” she decides to raise him as her own and proceeds to do so.
As Benjamin grows into childhood, he still has the look and infirmities of a very old man. To show that on screen, the film resorts to digital wizardry, to at times placing Pitt’s computer-aged face on the bodies of actors who play him at the early stages of his life.
While that bit of technical virtuosity is supposed to make us ponder the mysteries of mortality, actually seeing these various Buttons plays as grotesque and gimmicky, leading to speculation that the chance to do something bizarre and unsettling is what attracted Fincher to the project in the first place.
A lot of things happen to young Benjamin growing up in New Orleans, from chatting with a Pygmy to visiting a bordello, but except for his life-changing meeting with young Daisy (Elle Fanning), each event seems more arbitrary than the last. When he decides to go to sea, it’s anyone’s guess why he ends up in Murmansk and has an affair with an unhappily married woman (the always reliable Tilda Swinton). Maybe the opportunity to go even icier was more than anyone could resist.
When Benjamin and Daisy, who’s been in New York studying dance with George Balanchine (don’t ask), finally hit those years when they can play their real ages, it’s a relief to see, but not enough of a relief to save this film. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” leaves you colder than it should, and it shouldn’t leave you cold at all.
‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’
MPAA rating: PG-13 rating for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release