Ambitious, intriguing and, ultimately, sleepy, David Fincher's much-anticipated follow-up to Zodiac is exquisitely made but fails to honor F. Scott Fitzgerald's decision to deliver a short story. Clocking in at nearly three hours, this tale of a man who lives life backward wants to be an epic when something more modest would do. By building such a lengthy film around such a simple premise (already explored for comedic effect on Mork & Mindy), Benjamin Button comes off as a bit too presumptuous and self-important, a storytelling exercise in search of greater meaning. Which isn't surprising given that the screenplay was written by none other than Forrest Gump's Eric Roth, who, once again, pens a maddeningly passive protagonist, the misfit who acts as a spectator in his own life story. And also like Gump, this strangely haunting film is ultimately about the fickleness of fate and the inevitable failure of love.
Born an old man, Benjamin Button's (Brad Pitt) mother tragically dies in childhood. Horrified, his father, a wealthy button-manufacturer, abandons him on the steps of a New Orleans nursing home. Here Benjamin is discovered by a loving black employee (Taraji P. Henson) who decides to raise him among the elderly residents. With his arthritic joints and cataract-clouded eyes, the boy feels right at home. But as each year passes, Benjamin grows younger, and eventually he sets off to see the world as a 60-year-old teenager. Meandering from one encounter to the next, he experiences the elation and disappointment of first love as well as the tragedy of war. In time, however, Benjamin longs to return home to his family, and seek out the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a headstrong ballet dancer not ready to be romanced by someone who seems twice her age. Though various circumstances stand in their way, the two finally come together, knowing, of course, that their love's impossible. As Daisy grows older, Benjamin grows younger. Their time as a couple is doomed to be fleeting and tragic. The entire tale unfolds as Daisy's daughter reads Benjamin's diary to her dying mother, with Hurricane Katrina beating against the hospital room windows.
While the all elements seem to be in place, stories like this aren't exactly right for Roth, whose scripts (Munich, The Insider, The Good Shepherd) do better when they've a more political or social agenda. Though, it could be argued that his protagonists tend to be more reactive than proactive, in both Button and Gump Roth created characters who are almost too passive to identify with. But where Gump's affect and handicap were externalized to sentimental effect, Benjamin's an interior character, which works against actor Brad Pitt's strengths. Better in roles where he can let his freak flag fly (Fight Club, Snatch, 12 Monkeys), Pitt struggles to convey what Button's experiences mean to him, rather than create a flesh-and-blood character. It's as if he and Roth are afraid to truly get beneath Benjamin's skin, content instead to present him as a misshapen yet uncarved block of longing. Worse, the open-ended structure of Benjamin's story feels arbitrary and unfocused, never delivering a message that's more meaningful than, "live life as it happens."
But where writer and star struggle, the director succeeds. Harnessing some incredibly fine special effects and composing one arresting visual after another, David Fincher proves again he's both an intellectual and artistic stylist. Though his compositions have a Kubrickian detachment to them, he creates a rich and touching romantic fable that makes up for its emotional detachment and sprawling narrative with a poignant and melancholic tone. Fincher provides enough provocative instances to carry us past the movie's obvious flaws. Furthermore, the supporting cast, particularly the women, are all top-notch, filling the screen with humanity and grace.
In the end, Benjamin Button is like a flawed poem; it doesn't really add up to a successful or provocative whole. But his backward journey through life and loss has enough deeply felt moments of beauty that it sticks with you days after watching it.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].