By Ray Pride
It get don’t I.
A case of too much of a so-so thing, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a fatal mismatch of sensibilities, orchestrated by a master of complete control, David Fincher, with a poet of the passive, screenwriter Eric Roth, whose work includes “The Good Shepherd” (spy as watcher) and “Forrest Gump” (simpleton as empty vessel).
Drawing on a slim conceit from a wafer of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald—man bites dog! I mean, “man born old grows young”—“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is less picaresque or lifelong wanderjahr than a hybrid “Forrest Button.” Things happen. A character gawps. The mind wanders. And it makes one muse over passivity in Fincher’s films: in “Fight Club,” doesn’t The Narrator lie back and let rampaging id Tyler do all the work? And “Zodiac” is a masterpiece about a gaze that misunderstands, about asking the wrong questions rather than not ever finding a sought answer.
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born old and grows to be an ancient newborn. Ever-fresh Daisy, the girl he loves, dances from a redhead of 10 to a dancer of whatever, embodied in some parts by Cate Blanchett, and in the distancing present-tense portions, set during the winds and lashing rains of Hurricane Katrina, by a bid for a Best MakeUp Oscar. In the middle, there’s stuff about shipping out to sea and committing adultery with Tilda Swinton in a Russian hotel and getting sunk at sea and eventually Brad Pitt digitized to a younger, ever more angelic version of himself on the back of a fine shiny motorcycle. For me, the feeling was less one of coolness and distance and apartness from the material that some have identified than simply, what is going on here? It feels as impersonal as a yellowed telegram ordering clock parts. Pitt is a lovely mirror, but what’s reflected back? Are you the hero of your own life if your fate is to repeatedly open the closet in the hall and life avalanches on your head like a succession of empty boxes?
Born in New Orleans on the day World War II ends, Benjamin is a foundling, thought a monster for his newborn decrepitude, but once left on the doorstep of an infertile young woman (Taraji P. Henson), a miracle. Fireworks play across the French Quarter night, like the similar digital sky that opens “Zodiac,” with fireworks exploding above the bridges of the Bay. But the episodic tale that follows pales in comparison to “Zelig” or to “Forrest Gump,” less a chronicle of experiential amplitude than one of fussy gee-whillikers cod-drollery.
Images of intimate beauty twinkle through the tobacco’ed skies of this would-be epic, but the voluminous narration reminds again and again of only one indelible figure from the pantheon of cinema: Joey Nickels. Joey Nickels? Joey Nickels from “Annie Hall”! Joey Five Cents? (What! an asshole!) The stories being funneled through the walls of the theater invariably sound like oft-repeated balderdash from someone who’s grown used to no one listening, not even himself. (“Button”’s best recurring joke involves lightning strikes, and is self-criticism of high comic attainment.)
Still, in terms of inedible imagery, Jean-Pierre Fincher still trumps Jeunet, to whose work “Button” has been compared. In faux battlefield footage, doughboys stride backward as if emerging from the bullets that had in fact just pierced their chests. Florets of fireworks reflected incidentally in a Model T’s tilted-just-so windscreen. Night-set scenes that work on the verge of pitch, the blackness and guttering sepia of de la Tour candlelight. A perspective of bridges overhead melting with fog. Daisy in a flat beret. An early 1960s rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. Scars on a woman’s legs, fingered deftly.
Any element beyond the simplest elements of timepieces, beyond basic movement, consists of constructions that are crested with a lovely term of art: complications. (Thus, great and treasured watches are built from complications of complications.) But in plotting, as in childbirth, complications can be the death of a thing, the death of narrative grace and ease. There are heartening, hushed instances when you can feel Benjamin and Daisy meeting in the middle, the conceit of the moments of the two lovers are slowly hurtling in opposite directions, and you can furnish the particulars of your own life and loves to capture the sense of the fleeting correspondence of contact, or parallel human treks. But that’s the function of canvas, not of a painting. And at these instances when the characters meet at nearly the same age that imply the sorrows of fleeting flesh and ever-limber love…yet the moment you’re touched Roth reaches out and slaps you with a nice wet bromide. Something like “You’re odd. You’re diff’r’nt from anybody I ever met,” or “You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. You can make the best or the worst of it.” Box of chocolates for $160 million, Alex? I can’t see the trees for the Forrest, but sweep Oscar smell I.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is birthed Christmas day.