Dec. 29, 2008
F. Scott Fitzgerald is renowned for having written the most famous American novel, The Great Gatsby, which closes with one of literature's best-known lines, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the boat becomes a man becomes a trope, the story of a human being who is born old and who lives his life in reverse, moving through old age, to maturity, to the prime of life, to adolescence, to childhood, and finally to infancy. Benjamin is literally borne back ceaselessly into what for everyone else would be the past. It's an extraordinary concept, but does it make an extraordinary film?
For Fitzgerald, the futility of holding on to romance, to beauty, to life itself is implicit in every word and gesture. Moments of exquisite beauty fade instantly as they occur and their fatal aura only sharpens the impressions they leave upon the senses. Southern light lends itself to such uses and the decadent -- that is, decaying - atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1920s and '30s is overripe for such a story (Fitzgerald's original was published in 1921, and the film bears little relation to it other than the title). Cinematically, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button captures that evanescent beauty in almost every scene; it is a visually sensual movie that recreates its time in nearly every frame.
For all of that beauty, however, the film is an empty vessel, and Benjamin himself is the reason why. Were it not for the fantastic trajectory of his existence, it is altogether unclear why we should care about his life and not altogether clear that he cares about it either. His very being is the work of an artist's imagination, but he himself seems to lack an imaginative core. He not only experiences life in reverse, he experiences it passively, whether it is piano lessons, his first sexual experience, his first job as a tugboat hand, the second world war, his first real love, fatherhood, and finally, as an infant, death itself.
The film's recurring phrase, "You never know what is coming for you," is apt in a manner the movie may not intend. Things happen to Benjamin, but he is not one to go out to meet them. He passes the lives of others in the night, heading the other way. There is occasional poignancy in this passageway, but it is seldom truly evocative. The performances by the leads, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, contribute to this quality. Blanchett's porcelain features and royal bearing reinforce a coolness that contrasts starkly with the vibrancy of the film's black characters, who alone seem real. Benjamin's own coolness at the death of his adoptive mother, Queenie, played with power by Taraji Henson, seems merely odd. He behaves like a visitor at her funeral, not like a son.
The narrative flashback form used in the film has been done elsewhere, and better, most notably in another tall tale filled with picaresque Southern elegance, Tim Burton's Big Fish. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's framing story, like that of Big Fish, features parent-child tension and death-bed revelations, but the stakes in Burton's film seem far higher and relate integrally to the movie's meaning. Peter Finch's character in Big Fish makes his experiences larger-than-life and those experiences mystically grow to assume the size of his telling; Benjamin Button renders his larger-than-life experiences in a way that seems to diminish them, and he follows them into shrinking significance as the film flows on, like Heraclitus's river.
Take Burton and its genuine romance, over Button and its curious ennui.