The Curious Case of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”Posted: December 27, 2008
Some flawed films transcend their problems to be wonderful moviegoing experiences after all. So it is with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Through the first half of the movie, Brad Pitt, as the reverse-aging Button, is a cipher. Things happen to him, but as to who he is, there’s not much there there. Aging backwards could really do a number on you, I get that, but wouldn’t you have some personality, rather than none?
And at points along the way the storytellers haven’t worked out their timeline rigorously. OK, it’s World War Two now, so he’d have reverse-aged how many years? And his normally-aging girlfriend Daisy would be how old now? Then how come he doesn’t look that age, and how come she’s the dancing ingenue in the original cast of Carousel? And how come Daisy’s daughter (whom we see in the present-day framing device, as she attends her now-dying mother) looks like she’s thirty-two to her mother’s ninety?
Other aspects of the tale feel less than fully thought out. As Benjamin regresses into childhood, he seems to develop Alzheimer’s. But Alzheimer’s is a disease brains get when they get old. If Benjamin’s body is growing younger, and his brain is a part of his body, a disease of brain decrepitude makes no sense.
But while such questions nag, their nagging becomes less insistent, and the film takes on power, about halfway through, as we begin to recognize the emotional toll on Benjamin and those who love him as their ages cross each other and diverge. In the first half, Benjamin and those around him have the happy experience of seeing their ages converge from their opposite poles; but once that halfway meeting point is crossed and passed, we know the characters are in for a world of pain.
Button makes you believe in its story, makes you think about how you’d feel if it happened to you. And so it is different from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story on which it’s based. Fitzgerald’s story is coldly comical in tone, and its main business is social satire. We aren’t meant to identify with the figure at its center for a second. But we do identify with the Button of Brad Pitt, director David Fincher and scenarist Eric Roth.
Here is the best thing about Benjamin Button: It made me grateful that my wife and I, and all my other friends and loved ones, are aging in the same direction. We usually think getting old and dying sucks. Well, maybe it does — but getting young and dying (when all about you are going the other way) sucks worse. It is a blessing we journey in the same direction as each other, even though that journey end in death. I’m going to try not to forget that.
Roth, by the way, just lost all his money to Bernie Madoff. He’s off on his own picaresque life adventure now.