There’s a frightening symmetry to the process of aging that David Fincher, making his cruellest picture since Se7en, illustrates to eerie effect in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That the film’s titular, time-unstuck protagonist is portrayed by Brad Pitt, that blue-eyed specimen of softly chiseled macho beauty, only adds to its implicit threat that we’re all on the way to decidedly less-attractive ends. That its magical backwards-aging VFX work is accomplished through a technique so advanced that it becomes hard to know where Pitt’s physical presence leaves off and the digitally enabled simulacrum takes over adds to the film’s metaphysical chill. Coming out of the theater, not only are you three hours older than you were when you went in, but you get the sense that your too-human flesh is also that much closer to obsolete.
The film opens strong, with an anecdote about one Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas) illustrating one way that artists react to the terrible realities around them. Gateau’s public unveiling of a huge, backward-running clock that he hopes will turn back time on the casualties of young soldiers fighting World War I has cinematic resonance dating all the way back to Abel Gance’s original J’accuse!, which the great director made in 1919, hoping his art could keep the world from going to war again. (In a chilling touch, he enlisted actual soldiers from the trenches of WW1 to play the ghosts of men killed in the war they were then fighting.)
But Eric Roth’s screenplay repeatedly eases the gravitas by laying on the sentiment and cliché, building a story around a steady stream of maudlin narrative geegaws rather than figuring out what makes his main character tick. The film relies on that hoariest of framing-devices, the elderly woman (Cate Blanchett, apparently suffocating underneath a thick layer of floppy-skin prosthetics) dying in her hospital bed and asking her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), to read to her from a lengthy memoir. The book turns out to be Benjamin’s journal. Many flashbacks ensue. Secrets are revealed. Bizarrely, Roth and Fincher bear down on the mother-daughter duo not just with the force of a lifetime of bittersweet emotion, heartsickness and regret, but with very bad weather, throwing the approaching Hurricane Katrina (!) into the narrative mix. You can almost imagine the stagehands standing by backstage, waving around big pieces of sheet metal to make the threatening wubba!-wubba!-wubba! sound of thunder.
Fincher’s digital camera sees deep into the shadows at the heart of this story, its formidable impassivity leaching the emotion out of centerpiece moments like the gazebo-staged seduction dance by Benjamin’s soul mate Daisy (Blanchett, clad all in red), which the object of her attentions fends off with little more than a bemused stare and an invisible shrug. Daisy’s advances play, somehow, like sexual provocations from an alien being — there are solar systems, entire galaxies, separating the two of them. Has Benjamin’s dalliance with the very womanly Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) ruined him for girlish charms? Is he too conscious of his middle-aged paunch and spectacles? Or is he still red with shame from the undeserved scolding he received from Daisy’s grandmother, who treated his innocent dalliance with a childhood friend as the actions of a closet pedophile? Or is it just that Benjamin Button is a character who doesn’t really do anything?
Yes, that’s it. Benjamin Button doesn’t do anything. He’s buffeted by the winds of history to a Louisiana whorehouse, a Russian dive bar, and the naval theater of World War II, but he’s an awfully passive protagonist. He doesn’t discover his sexuality so much as he has it thrust upon him. And when he later travels to New York to see Daisy, and when she takes his balls in her sexually mature hands and grinds them to powder between her strong dancer’s fingers, he sucks it up and simply waits for her to discover that she loves him. Benjamin doesn’t lose his temper, nor does he show his frustration. He’s kind and patient and loving and selfless — a Christ figure making the ultimate sacrifice for her sins. The problem is Benjamin barely seems capable of behaving differently. (It’s as though he realizes he’s but a character in someone else’s script.) Fincher’s good at evoking that sense of a man whose circumstances are beyond his control, and there’s a sense in some scenes that he’s aiming to turn the conventional Hollywood prestige picture on its head by emphasizing the necessarily tragic conclusion faced even by those who live the longest and happiest lives. The scene where an aging Daisy confronts the acne-addled adolescent Benjamin, who is racked with a kind of inverted dementia, is especially pointed.
Roth doesn’t deserve all the blame, of course. A director is supposed to be a creative collaborator, and it’s a shame that Fincher didn’t realize that the script’s formulaic pleasures were so at odds with his own famous worldview — that meticulous clockwork sensibility, the vaunted cynicism and taste for the visceral that can be read as misanthropy. The result is at once unexpected and obvious, occupying an uneasy middle ground between comfort and affliction. Benjamin Button is both the gloppy Hallmark card and the grieving parent, the flowers and the cancer ward. It’s the teddy bear at the taxidermist’s.