The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonMonday, January 19, 2009
After the dizzying heights of Zodiac, David Fincher comes crashing back to earth with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here’s a film with a marvellous premise – a man being born old and gradually growing younger – that never takes flight. It’s a bafflingly empty experience.
The key problem is the passivity of the main character. Do we ever get to know him? Do we ever get inside his head? No we don’t. And there’s such scope for human emotion. Here’s a man who’s unlike any other. Here’s a man destined to become more youthful and beautiful as those around him decay and wither. But we never get any sense of sadness, or confusion, or anger. Benjamin Button never asks ‘why me?’ He just glides through life, seemingly all too happy to have been thrown this curveball.
But just think of what could have been done with this character. Denied youth for almost 60 years, and forced to become humble before his time, he could have given into brashness and arrogance later in life. Instead he just sleeps with a couple of women (or three). Or he could have even suffered the ignominy of having a youthful body but an old mind. He could have suffered the onset of dementia while looking like James Dean. But no, as a young man (even though he’s apparently old inside) he seems to have a young mind, too. So therefore I didn’t feel anything for him because he didn’t seem to feel anything himself. The only time the character seems to have some real sense of self-awareness is when he leaves his beloved Daisy because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want her to have to bring up two children. But this is done is a completely half-assed manner. They have a stilted conversation and he goes. Instead of coming over as a doomed individual, he just seems flaky, and where’s the tragedy in that?
The only time I really felt anything for Benjamin was when he becomes a child and he can’t remember anything. At one point he sits on the roof and thinks he can fly. To have lived a full life and to lose all those memories to the passage of time is truly sad, but the film just suddenly comes to this. There’s no progression. You never get the feeling that things are slipping away from Button. One minute he’s a beautiful teenager with his memory and character intact, and the next he’s a helpless child. I wanted to feel time slipping away from him. I wanted to feel the terror that he’d feel, knowing that he was shrinking into himself. But instead the ending kind of feels like an afterthought. It’s there to tie everything up.
Despite this, at the end, you have the film’s most beautiful and heartbreaking image – a long shot of two old lovers walking down the street, but one of those people is an elderly lady and the other is a child. It has a strangeness that makes it striking and touching – the devotion of Daisy to see things through to the end finally makes you feel something for these people.
Unfortunately, though, there’s no chemistry between Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Therefore most of the film is a dead loss. How are you supposed to invest in characters when the passion between them is non-existent?
And Fincher’s idea of romance is more than a little adolescent. What do Benjamin and Daisy do when they finally become an item? Why they go sailing into the sunset on a beautiful yacht, of course. Pur-lease. I’d expect this from someone like Richard Curtis, not the man who made Zodiac and Seven.
And the scene where a teenage Benjamin turns up to woo an elderly Daisy one last time just doesn’t work. It’s meant to be the emotional highlight, but it’s just a little weird. And it’s weird because the teenage Button seems to have completely black, lifeless eyes. It really put me off. And it also doesn’t work because it all feels more than a little cold. This is meant to be their last hurrah, but it feels like either of them could take it or leave it. I never got the feeling that this was some great romance.
You also have to get over the fact that the two characters first meet when one looks very old and when one looks very young. Does this ever enter their minds? Does Daisy fantasise about the wrinkly old man and does Benjamin fantasise about the perky, little girl? Who knows…
Another relationship that doesn’t work is the one between Benjamin and his father. You see, Benjamin’s father is dismayed when he sees that his son is ugly as sin. Therefore he goes through town and dumps him on the steps of an old person’s home. You’d think this abandonment might piss Benjamin off. But it doesn’t really. When he finally finds out who his father is he seems nonplussed. He doesn’t really go searching for answers to who he is – he just politely listens. This crushing passivity suffocates drama at every turn.
The only really enjoyable element of the film is the visuals. The film is gorgeous to look at. In particular, I love the first scene where Thomas Button runs through town as fireworks burst in the air (it’s the end of the Great War). The photography is gorgeous and the period detail is impeccable. But pretty early on you realise this is all the film has to offer – a beautiful exterior without a heart. Honestly, I ended up using the film as a kind of clothes catalogue. I’ve already noted that I should get a white t-shirt and leather jacket (although I guess I’ll do without the Triumph motorcycle). But aside from that, I got nothing from this movie.
And it’s quite sad when the trailer for the film is so much better than the film itself. Just watch the first teaser. It literally shows the whole film from beginning to end, only minus the lifeless filler in-between. It got me really excited for this film – it looked like it had something magical to offer. But along the way someone forgot that a film doesn’t exist on beautiful visuals alone – you need a human drama to anchor it, something that is sorely lacking here.