Monday, February 9, 2009

The Problem of Benjamin Button

Virtually all the press about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button presents the film as a story of triumph and uplift. As reviewers and advertisements would have it, the film offers us the satisfyingly chastening reminder that love can transcend time—and, more importantly, can overcome the normal and gradual aging of the human body. Of course, we say. How shallow we have been to forget this truth (or, god forbid, not to believe it). How lucky that David Fincher has come along to remind us of it.

The problem with Benjamin Button—and there are several—is that the film that Fincher has put together does exactly the opposite of what he has set out to convince us of. Rather than show us how the mind and heart can defy the limitations of the body, Benjamin Button suggests that the body determines and defines us.

The poignancy of Benjamin Button’s situation is supposed to come from the dissonance between his chronological and physical age. He is a child who cannot walk or run, then a young man whose back and knees ache, and then an elderly man with the smooth face of a boy. But besides a fairly workmanlike voice-over, we never see Benjamin’s thoughts, except for one lovely moment that shows that Brad Pitt is a better actor than anyone has ever asked him to be (about which more later). We are left with a story of looks—and here is the trouble.

When Brad Pitt looks twenty, dancing the twist in a 60s apartment, we should be aware that he possesses the wisdom of a seventy-year-old man. It’s an interesting conundrum: what would you do if you had all that knowledge and the body that allowed you to act on it? But we look at the young man and can’t help but notice that the woman he loves has crow’s feet and a pre-Botox-era forehead. Scene after scene—on the motorcycle, on the sailboat—Fincher shoots Pitt in glamour poses bathed with golden light. Pitt’s youth is what we long for, not Benjamin Button’s wisdom. The film reinforces such a typical Hollywood fantasy that it almost seems unfair to point it out.

I went to see Benjamin Button with my eighty-four-year old mother—a woman who is in amazing shape for her age, but who would trade experience and wisdom in a heartbeat for the chance to look twenty. As the film began, with the unnecessary frame narrative of Julia Ormond reading Benjamin Button’s diary to her dying mother, I could hear my own mother grumbling about the unpleasantness of the scene. She would watch Ormond, but kept turning away from the sight of Cate Blanchett made up to look old (but still blessed with high cheekbones). I was sure my mother would ask me to take her home, but I needn’t have worried. She turned out to be the perfect audience for the film, audibly sighing with relief when Brad Pitt appeared at his youngest incarnation, late in the movie.

Granted, who can blame an old woman for longing for the time when her skin was unlined and her body was at its most vigorous? And surely, at her age and widowed for five years, the sight of a death-bed can only remind her of my father’s time in one. But if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had done its job, my mother and I would both have walked out of the theater reassured that the body is just the vehicle for the far more valuable thoughts and feelings it contains.

There is some triumph in the movie, all the same—and it’s in Tilda Swinton’s too-brief appearance, and in Fincher’s technical abilities. But most of all, it’s in that scene that shows what Brad Pitt can do as an actor. Blanchett’s Daisy lies in a hospital bed with a body broken from a car crash when Benjamin comes to see her, looking roughly like a forty-year-old. “God, you’re perfect,” she says to him, with a tinge of spite. He doesn’t respond, but the look on Pitt’s face—or, rather, the series of looks—says it all. It conveys all the sadness, isolation, pleasure, and wistfulness of a life in which the mind and the body have never been at peace. That is something to make a movie out of.


  1. Great thoughts and marvelously written Heri !
    When I first heard about the film, the premise intrigued me and I waited for the release with great anticipation. I didnt know how Fincher could sell me an elderly youngster, middle aged twenty-something and a juvenile octogenarian all within the framework of a storyline that would allow us to delve into the psyche of Pitt's soul and leave with a sense of how HE rationalized this bizzare life. In this regard, they failed but Pitt did turn in what I thought was one of his best performances. I like to gauge the success of a movie, not by its box office numbers, but rather how many times I think about the characters and premise days and months after I leave the theatre. I have often thought about this movie many times since Kelley, Chris and I viewed it one cold winters night in January not due to its theatrical success but because I found myself caring about these characters and how they were trying to cope with a situation with absolutely no parallels.


  2. While I wouldn't say this was Fincher's goal--but who knows--it's almost as if the impossibility of knowing exactly what Benjamin thinks about all this makes the viewer supply his or her own conclusions. BB is a blank slate onto which we can project our own fears, worries, hopes, and fascinations about age and how we will have spent our lives. Does this make the experience of watching the film richer? I'm not sure.
    Thanks for commenting!

  3. I agree. It’s as if Roth decided purposefully to make him a simple rather than a wise character, as if that would add to the poignancy. But to have had the added dimension of wisdom in the movie would have been like winning the lottery.