When I first saw the preview for director David Fincher’s new movie, I thought it was an adaptation of The Confessions of Max Tivoli, a novel I read (and disliked) several years ago. Of course, I was wrong about the preview. I learned later that novelist Andrew Sean Greer had lifted his premise from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is that story that is dramatized in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
To be frank, though, I don’t see why Fitzgerald and Greer and Fincher and his screenwriters are all so enamored of the conceit of a person who ages backward, born in the body of a shriveled old man and gradually “growing down,” so to speak, to die as an infant. Beyond the obvious (and depressing) parallels between infancy and old age, I just don’t see what I’m supposed to get out of it.
Not that Benjamin Button is without its charms. Despite its length (nearly three hours!), it didn’t bore me. Brad Pitt plays Benjamin, with a team of little people body doubles and truly gifted special-effects artists to age him in both directions. The always dazzling Cate Blanchett plays Daisy, the love of Benjamin’s life and a ballet dancer, too, meaning we get a brief but tantalizing glimpse of a pas de deux from Carousel. Every scene, every shot, is beautifully conceived—not always perfectly realistic (the episodes on boats look almost sound-stagey) but beautiful in the way the interior of a snow globe is beautiful: delicate and precious and occasionally magical.
And yet, the snow globe impression is almost too accurate. For all its epic, picaresque scale—spanning the past hundred years of American history—Benjamin Button ultimately feels quite small. The titular hero is a good man, kind and loyal, but he’s not particularly interesting. His unique aging doesn’t seem to make his view of the world more insightful or intriguing than anyone else’s.
I fear part of the blame lies on Pitt. He ably lends his charisma to Benjamin, but he is better at showing us the youth inside a seemingly aged body than the wisdom of age in a seemingly youthful body. As Benjamin grows older (though younger in appearance), he grows blanker, almost vacuous. There is, I’ll admit, a compellingly eerie shiver in seeing Pitt restored to A River Runs Through It–era vigor, but it’s an empty effect. His pretty face tells us nothing. For once, youth has not been wasted on the young, but Benjamin has nothing to show us for that.
And really, what are we to get out of this movie? It reverberates with portent, always insisting, through its aesthetic grandeur, that this means something—but what? If anything, Benjamin Button leaves a sour taste in my mouth for prettying up the horror of dementia with cute kids and babies. The inevitable quasi-pedophilic overtones to either end of Benjamin’s life (when the gap between his true age and his apparent age is greatest) are also faintly distasteful.
Good science-fiction uses the extraordinary to make us think about our ordinary experiences in a different way, but Benjamin Button fails at that. As “curious” as Benjamin’s experiences are, they don’t show us anything new, not really. We know that aging is painful. We know that loss of memory is a tragedy. We know that “nothing lasts.” And Benjamin is not nearly so interesting a guide through those familiar platitudes as Fincher and company seem to believe.