The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a brilliant movie for the future of film in a variety of ways that I suspect no one involved with the film will want to celebrate. For example, I suspect that hopeful movie critics for years to come will be given it as a test of their abilities. It’s a tricky movie to critique. I also have my suspicions that a wide variety of film classes will make great use of it. Should we turn the sound off and examine scenes for any number of the methods and modes of film creation, this is a movie with much to teach. It is, without the slightest hint of question, a beautiful and masterfully constructed film. It is also the best silk purse example of a film I’ve had to suffer through since Gods & Generals.
The film is based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at the very beginning I feel it is absolutely essential to put an end to that mockery of a theory. The two share a name, and the very general idea of a person who is born old and “grows” young, and there the similarity ends. What the film is actually based on is Eric Roth’s vague belief that he can take that general idea and remake Forrest Gump.
The real tragedy of that is that while you could put together volumes on the meaning and genuine statements on life contained in Fitzgerald’s few pages, the film is a vacuous glorification of meaninglessness… just like that other film. It not only has nothing to say about life, love, or the human condition in its bizarrely long-winded account of its story, it’s vehemently proud of the fact.
Our story is that of Benjamin Button, who is born incredibly old and grows into Brad Pitt. When his mother dies in childbirth, his father snatches the monsterish-looking Benjamin and runs off into the night, abandoning him on the steps of a home for the elderly. He is adopted and raised by Queenie, the sassy and kindly African-American keeper of the old, who at one point starts saying, “Life is like a box of…,” but catches herself quickly. Benjamin slowly grows into a really old man living among really old people who come and go as death visits the home. Eventually a granddaughter, Daisy, comes to visit, and Benjamin meets the woman his infirmity sets him apart from, and ultimately brings him together with.
The tremendously slow passage of time sees this duo going their own ways, but always thinking of each other. Benjamin finds his way to historic and wonderful events, and Jenny Daisy tries her hand at a life she finds very interesting, but eventually finds her way back to Benjamin. The two find their way together when they “meet” at ages that seem to fit together to a degree, but one physical problem or another becomes very tricky for their lives.
In the end, starting life old and slow leads to a certain formation of naive which is equated with “slow” for film comparison, and is hoped to represent (in both) a sort of uber-koan on understanding life best by understanding life least.
The catchphrase of the film is, more or less, that a lot of crazy circumstances come together and form your life, and that’s all you’re going to get from it by way of statement. It saunters along prettily, truly in love with its idea that “life is… like, what happens or some junk,” is a wickedly profound statement, and it trots its bumper-sticker truisms out in front of you in neon (and narrates them), not because it wants to be sure you get them, but because its afraid you aren’t clever enough to otherwise.
It’s a film custom-tailored in every way for the legion of film critics and Academy voters who wouldn’t be able to tell you why the original story is good if their life depended on it, but can spin a great quote out of their fascination for shiny objects. It’s pretty because films that win awards are pretty. It’s long and has a pace that matches perfectly with the syrup it is trying to forge its way through for the same reason.
All that said, there is no way to deny that the film is indeed beautiful. I was completely serious when I mentioned that film classes will (and should) look very seriously at its construction. I take my hat off to David Fincher, because however bad the film is, it isn’t his fault really. The thing goes wrong in ways that have nothing to do with all those ways that it goes amazingly right. It even deserves the Academy Awards it won. Still, a really amazing job of painting your living room, even if it inspires those who see it to say, “Wow! That looks great,” doesn’t make it art, and there’s a reason for that.
As I say, Fitzgerald is a great writer in a way that this movie cannot hope to understand. The Great Gatsby is not a long book. But, in another way it is perhaps one of the longest books ever written. I would not go so far with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it lives in a similar world, and it has quirky pokes to take at people “in society” and really makes you wonder how the hell it turned out that Benjamin is just like you. The film, on the other hand, is an unbelievable 166 minutes long, and may well be the shortest film I’ve ever seen.
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