The story of a man who ages in reverse, from a decrepit nonagenarian to a baby, could have been told as horror. It could have been an intense psychological drama. But in the hands of screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher — loosely adapting a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald — Benjamin Button is mostly whimsy.
What is whimsy? It’s the artistic impulse that turns human despair into something gentler, sweeter and more humorous, and then sometimes into kitsch. Take the opening scenes of Benjamin Button, where a moribund Southern belle named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) tells her grown daughter (Julia Ormond) about a clock that used to stand in the New Orleans railroad terminal. In a pastel-hued flashback, we watch the whimsically named clockmaker Mr. Gateau fashion a beautiful instrument whose hands run counter-clockwise. Why? His son died in World War I, and he wants time to reverse itself and undo the damage.
Does anyone seriously expect a clock to turn back time? Did the station owners get their money back? It’s pointless to ask such literalist questions of a work of whimsy, where everything is half a metaphor. That’s certainly the case of Benjamin Button himself. Born on the night the war ends, he’s a small, squalling infant with the face of an old man — and, thanks to the wonders of computer graphics, Brad Pitt can play him at this and most succeeding stages of his life.
Abandoned by his freaked-out papa, Benjamin is taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a young woman who runs an old-age home. Fretting in his wheelchair, and then toddling around on crutches, the young oldster fits right in. But unlike the home’s other residents, as he “ages,” he gets taller and more robust.
The script indicates that Benjamin’s mind ages in the usual direction — that is, he starts infantile, not senile. When he meets the pretty child Daisy (Elle Fanning), he sees her as his own age. But Roth (best known for penning Forrest Gump) never delves into the fascinating issue of how it would feel to experience childhood in a mature body. Indeed, when someone asks Benjamin this very question, he merely replies in his wispy, young-Wilford-Brimley way, “I can only see through my own eyes.”
That’s all well and good — but can we see through his eyes? The answer is not really, unless Benjamin’s view of the world is sponsored by Hallmark. What we know about Pitt’s character is that he’s a well-meaning naïf who sees the best in everyone, whether it’s a randy pygmy or a brawling, tattooed tugboat captain or the world-weary wife of a British diplomat (Tilda Swinton). Though he experiences destruction in wartime and disappointment in love, nothing really seems to faze him.
Though the movie’s visuals are beautiful, the story they illustrate often seems thinner. For instance, there’s a scene where Daisy, grown into Blanchett and embarking on a career as a ballerina, reveals that she’s still too immature to fulfill her promise as Benjamin’s love interest. Fincher stages this scene at night beside a swimming pool, where Daisy strikes poses and natters pretentiously about Balanchine as her dark silhouette sets off the glittery reflections rising from the water. The imagery is ravishing and lyrical, but the pair’s interaction is painfully generic — and stays that way throughout the film, even as later developments tug inevitable tears from the audience.
To be sure, Benjamin Button has some things to say about this world in which we all age and die, and those ambitions, together with its epic scope and cinematography, will probably get it a slew of awards. But in my mind, nothing in this film even approaches the wrenching sadness of Synecdoche, New York, another movie about aging and death that portrays them with a lot less whimsy and more worldliness. Benjamin Button never seems to feel anger or bitterness or any emotion more negative than regret. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Synecdoche is selfish, paranoid, monomaniacal and often just an asshole. But somehow it’s easier to care about his decay and decline — maybe because he feels real.