'Benjamin Button' is Gump for Dummies

Metroland | January 8, 2009
A major hurricane is about to hit New Orleans. An elderly woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), hours from death in her hospital bed, asks her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), to remove a diary from a bag and read it aloud. First, we're told a story about a World War I-era clockmaker whose great work was a train-station timepiece that ran in reverse, his way of wishing he could turn back time for the war's fallen soldiers -- of which his son was one.

Fine setup, but none of this has anything to do with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film that has little to say and no idea how to say it. These would be forgivable contrivances if Button had any emotional heft, or any real story to tell. The unfortunate truth -- unfortunate, because this film has fooled a lot of people into thinking it's good -- is that David Fincher's three-hour adaptation of a whimsical F. Scott Fitzgerald short story would have been wise to hew closer to its source material. This could have been Memento as black comedy; instead it's a meandering bore.

If it's meant as such, the clock could be the worst metaphor in the history of film. See, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born elderly and aged backwards! But I'll give it a pass: It's quite possible that the hurricane is there to symbolize impermanence, and the clock story is a tribute to the victims of said hurricane.

But since the narrative structure is so awkward and fat with meaningless, heavy-handed metaphors (water, really?), that entire discussion is moot: The film simply would have been better without any of the Katrina/hospital sequences. It could have offered dozens more revelations using a linear narrative -- and if a narrator truly were necessary, it should have been Ormond, whose presence from the beginning of the film is a major tell. At least if her disembodied voice were telling Button's story there would be some amount of suspense.

Fincher, whose just-as-long Zodiac worked because it didn't really have an ending, is at a loss here. It's a very attractive film, but the director is stuck with an inexplicably sentimental screenplay by Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth, and a lead actor who just sits there and wears makeup for three-quarters of the picture. It's all talk and no action. For three fucking hours.

Now, the effects are very, very good. The makeup, the CGI, the newfangled camera techniques, whatever it took to make Pitt believable as an 80-year-old infant and a 25-year-old hunk -- it's Oscar-worthy stuff.

But underneath it all Button doesn't really do anything. He stumbles from situation to situation, offering anyone an explanation for his naiveté; surrounding characters cotton to him for no apparent reason besides the fact that he "seems different." The cast is fine, the women in particular: Taraji P. Henson, terrific in Hustle and Flow, is a standout as Button's adoptive mother. But Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, both elegant and excellent per usual, are forced to make a lot out of their lifeless roles.

As for the film's supposedly profound life lessons, they're just watered-down versions of more interesting sentiments. Roth even rips himself off: "You never know what's coming for you" is a second-rate "Life is like a box of chocolates." (Trust that I've never before wished for a movie to be more like Forrest Gump.) And Button takes nothing away from the other characters besides a few platitudes. He's no more than driftwood in this dead sea of a picture.


Metroland was founded in 1978 as a monthly entertainment guide; a year and a half later it went weekly, continuing to focus primarily on arts, entertainment and lifestyles. In September 1986, Metroland reinvented itself as a full-fledged alternative newsweekly, offering...
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