It takes almost three hours for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to wind down and approximate the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s fascinating image of a gigantic embryo floating in space and contemplating the Earth—then the audience—combined absurdity and magnificence. All mankind’s historical experience and scientific knowledge was distilled to a cosmic joke. Director David Fincher covets it, but Benjamin Button’s banal survey of big-L life—culminating in a hero’s return to an embryonic state—can’t top it.
The incredible story of a man who is born old and ages backward into infancy brings Fincher closer to his idol Kubrick. But it also exposes Fincher’s facile imagination. If Fincher was a socially responsive filmmaker, he would have rejected F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and, instead, adapted “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a classic fantasy appropriate to satirizing the unquestioned materialism that Fitzgerald—while formulating his Gatsby vision—thought was key to America’s post-industrial-boom mentality. Fincher could have addressed contemporary economic/class divisions. But for a technocrat fanboy, Fitzgerald’s bizarre death-to-birth fantasy had more appeal: self-importance.
In this cinematic oddity disguised as a coming-of-age story, Fincher dodges any social or spiritual significance in Benjamin Button’s sojourn through the 20th century. It’s a tall tale with no sense of the fantastic. Solipsistic to the extreme, even its love story—Benjamin connects with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) midway through both their lives—is morose. Kubrick was a misanthrope, but Fincher’s fashionable nihilism means he’s made another movie celebrating nothingness. There’s no philosophy about living or dying. It’s all a somber, pointless technical exercise—or “process,” as Fincherheads defended last year’s celluloid void, Zodiac.
Indifferent to Fitzgerald’s ideas about society and ambition, Fincher falls back on Hollywood cliché—reworking both Titanic and Forrest Gump. Starting with Daisy in wrinkly old-lady make-up like Titanic’s Old Rose, the silly narrative is complicated with unnecessary flashbacks. Fincher’s hero passively inhabits decades, observing the father who abandoned him (Jason Flemyng), a sad adulteress (Tilda Swinton), the unattainable Daisy, a salty sea captain (Jared Harris) and other minor characters. Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth must have been a little bored with another innocent hero, so the story emphasizes Daisy’s rootlessness (recalling Forrest’s beloved Jenny). This blatantly commercial framework disastrously unbalances the fantasy concept, emptying-out Benjamin’s idiosyncrasy and leaving Fincher’s assorted exercises in film technique as the main purpose. Like Benjamin, we can only sit back and watch the dollars being spent.
Fincher isn’t excited by the chronological cavalcade; each sequence becomes a technological set piece—on clock making, shipping, a caprice about fate that rummages De Palma’s Femme Fatale and a running gag about a man (not Benjamin) struck by lightning seven times—nodding to P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia. Apparently, Fincher is speaking in fanboy code while Roth’s insipid love story pacifies the rabble. Hard to imagine who’ll have the least fun.
Brad Pitt has none. With his head digitally placed on various bodies, Pitt displays less character than did Marlon Wayans’ CGI tour-de-force in Little Man—which hilariously said more about man’s stages of life. Benjamin’s a cipher. Watching him de-mature—or shrivel—into an embryo is a terrible movie idea. Pitt never ages into the sex god you expect; he devolves into an incurious, calf-eyed dweeb. The 20th century bores him. It’s just “process.”
Yet, because Pitt does consider himself a socially responsive film actor, he’s packed Benjamin Button with semi-topical references to Hurricane Katrina: It’s full of deprived Southern Negroes (especially Taraji P. Henson overdoing Benjamin’s Mammy). These superstitious but solicitous blacks don’t waken Benjamin’s awareness of Jim Crow; rather, they’re inconsequential—corny remnants of old Hollywood stereotypes.
It’s Cate Blanchett who gets star treatment. Horning in on Benjamin’s personal epic, unmagical Blanchett is the wrong actress to play an enchantress. Daisy, a quasi-Zelda Southern Belle, channels the worst Fitzgerald sentimentality. Vapid, imperious, hammy and off-putting, Daisy’s a ninny who name drops high-culture celebrities to justify her ballet-dancer aspirations. Shots of a ballet body double would be risible except Fincher keeps cutting back to Blanchett who’s heavy and graceless—a deadweight art-movie icon. Blanchett’s the perfect embodiment of Fincher’s pretenses. Benjamin Button’s real love story is between these apathetic aesthetes.
Their brazen self-involvement negates Brad Pitt into extinction. By the end, Fincher literalizes Kubrick’s iconic “starchild” as a zygote.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher, Running Time: 159 min.
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