F. Scott Fitzgerald published the story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 as part of a collection entitled Tales of the Jazz Age. As with so much of his work, the story, a fantasy about a man who ages in reverse, was a clever way of addressing pet themes concerning class, social standing and our tenuous hold on the conventions that root us to life. But, as Fitzgerald acknowledged, it was also about the meaning and value of maturity in a disordered world following the end of World War 1 where an entire generation of young men were robbed of the chance to grow old. The story begins in arch satire and ends in melancholy reverence of (lost) innocence.
Eighty-six years later, Hollywood and its special-effects wizards have discovered the story and brought it to the screen with Brad Pitt playing Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton playing his loves. Director David Fincher and his screenwriters depart from the original story fairly significantly and, sorry to say, not for the better. The film starts out promisingly with a parable — not in the original story — of a blind watchmaker who loses a son in the Great War and, out of his grief, builds a clock for the city that he lives in that runs backwards, as a tribute to all the boys who have lost their futures. It’s a moving little story unto itself, but the movie that follows doesn’t do it justice.
Fitzgerald, able to fully exploit satire for satire’s sake, has Button arriving into the world as a fully-formed old man — cranky and obdurate, arguing with all around him and frustrating his already distraught parents by sneaking cigars into his crib. Button starts out stolid and resigned and, as he “ages” grows more quixotic and finally, as death approaches, innocent. But the film, apparently feeling the need for verisimilitude (in a story about a man aging in reverse…), lingers too long on Button’s origin and rearing by a black foster mother who works in an old folk’s home. Too much attention to the special-effects wonders of a little old Brad Pitt. The Washington Post critic in reviewing the movie summed it up by saying “Forrest Gump, Meet Joe Black” and there were many times that it seemed the filmmakers had simply borrowed the plot of Forrest Gump wholesale: an oddity thrust into normal situations without much made of what it means. Like Gump, Pitt’s Button is a remarkably opaque character. Things of significance happen around him and to him (World War 2 with his buddy
Lieutenant Dan, er, I mean Captain Mike; travel to all corners of the earth; the Space program) but he remains aloof, almost a bystander in his own story. Only the lifelong love of Jenny, er, I mean Daisy engages him. There is a chance, I suppose, that, like Forrest Gump, many people will love this movie precisely because — as when listening to a piece of minimalist music devoid of its own meaning — they can invest the story and character with whatever emotional meaning they bring to it. But to me it was just bad.
Why make the movie of this story now? After eighty-six years? I think a story about a man who cheats age by growing younger as time passes might be pretty appealing to a generation of movie goers who are notoriously in love with their own youth. Whereas Fitzgerald’s story arose from angry regret over interrupted maturity, the emotional tone of this movie is more dread of mortality. The closest thing to a moral comes when the youthful Button counsels his aging wife that “it’s never too late” to strike out for the life one wants. Tell the audience what they want to hear. And how does the end finally come? Wrapped in swaddling and cradled in the arms of his lover/mother. It was meant to be beautiful but I found it very sad. A cheat.