Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (film review)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the new film directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth, was inspired by a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which it differs considerably. Fitzgerald’s story is about a man born a septuagenarian, 5’8”, and fully developed mentally as well as physically. He smokes his father’s cigars and reads the Encyclopedia Britannica instead of playing with child’s toys. Rather than aging, the man gets younger every year.

It’s a strange story about a freak of nature, a man who is loved neither by his parents nor his own child because of his strange deformity (for lack of a better word). The fate to which this condition condemns him is to never be accepted, or even to be understood. Even his wife – when she eventually discovers his condition – blames him for it:

“I'm not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there's a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I really don't think it's very considerate.”

“But, Hildegarde, I can't help it.”

“You can too. You're simply stubborn. You think you don't want to be like anyone else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if everyone else looked at things as you do--what would the world be like?”

Fitzgerald’s story is, indeed, short; but the film is not. In fact the film has very little in common with the story that inspired it. Fitzgerald fleshes out none of the characters but his protagonist. (We never even meet the remarkable mother who gave birth to a 5’8” child.) Roth – who also wrote Forrest Gump – creates a number of compelling characters on which to base this touching (sometimes cloying) story about love, loss, acceptance, and forgiveness (strikingly similar themes, in fact, to this season’s animated Tale of Despereaux).

While I was watching it, I was constantly torn between Fitzgerald’s intriguing premise and Roth’s heavy-handed Gumpiness. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, as well as a fine supporting cast, make the film enjoyable to watch. As in Forrest Gump, though, the filmmakers (and I’m assuming Roth in particular) make unnecessary efforts to connect the story quite superficially with a snapshot-view of American history, culminating in a Katrina-gripped New Orleans which allows the audience to anticipate the inevitable. I’m assuming the potential for audience identification was Roth’s sole motivation for setting his story in New Orleans; Fitzgerald’s is set in Baltimore.

In the film, Benjamin is a foundling, a white child raised by a black woman, Queenie, whose love and nurturance seem infinite. But as A.O Scott points out in his review for the New York Times, Benjamin, “though he is a white Southerner raised by a black woman…seems untouched by racial turmoil or by much of anything beyond the mysteries of his peculiar destiny.”

Another Gump-like feature of the film is Benjamin’s initial naivete; he’s a child, after all, even if he looks 70 and is born with cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, and other crippling diseases of old age. And he’s born the size of a normal baby. Fitzgerald’s Benjamin is not only adult size (which Fitzgerald never attempts to explain in naturalistic terms), but he apparently has the knowledge and experience of an old man as well. (His first words to his father, when meeting him at the hospital nursery: “Are you my father? Because if you are I wish you would get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here….This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat, and they brought me a bottle of milk!”)

For all its tear-jerking poignancy, the film’s final message is a feel-good one (or two): you can be whatever you want, do whatever you want; and you have to experience pain and loss in order to experience love. As I was watching the film I kept thinking that Fitzgerald’s story must have had more of an edge, and I wondered if it was more Poe-like than Gump-like. Since the story’s in the public domain, you can read the full-text version online, which I did, and found its aesthetic spare and direct. It’s not spooky, exactly, but there’s an uncanniness about it, and it has poignant, touching moments even without Fincher’s heavy-handed melodrama. In the last chapter, Fitzgerald tells us:

In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby's own grandfather.

The child’s loneliness – condemned to live his life in reverse, without the sympathy or understanding of any living soul – is heartbreaking. Fitzgerald does not hit us over the head with this heartbreak, however; it hides at the margins of the story, and can easily be dismissed along with the story’s overall eccentricity.

Fincher does not condemn poor Benjamin to a lonely life; instead he gives Benjamin a soulmate, Daisy. They meet as children, fall in love, have a child together; and at the end of his life, Benjamin (now a child himself) is cared for by the aging Daisy, now more like a mother or grandmother than anything else. Their love and intimacy surpass that of normal couples; such is the stuff of Hollywood films. The New Yorker film review is rather unfavorable: “This science-fiction reverse-aging conceit, from an early F. Scott Fitzgerald story, has been rendered by the writer Eric Roth and the director David Fincher with a fanatical literalness that occasionally touches the uncanny but that often feels laborious and even pedantic.”

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the film lie outside of Benjamin’s own story. Thematically they lie in the enclosing of multiple, tangential stories within the folds of the primary one. Filmically they reside in the corresponding representations of those stories, beginning with the framing narrative – Daisy’s extended story of the blind clockmaker (Mr. Gateau, or Mr. Cake) whose son dies in the Great War, so he makes the clock for New Orleans’ new railway station to run backwards, as if to reverse time and bring back his son (alluding to Benjamin’s aging backwards). At the end of the film, when Katrina breaches the New Orleans levy, we see the waters lap at the dismantled clock in its dusty storage. Then there are Benjamin’s brief visions of the old man as he tells Benjamin he’s been hit by lightning seven times. These episodes reminded me of Magnolia, one of my favorite contemporary films (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, released in 2000).

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