David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be released on Christmas Day, a fitting premiere for a sentimental, multi-generational saga that plucks shamelessly at the heartstrings.
A family picture is not what viewers expect from Fincher, best known for Fight Club, but Benjamin Button is a magical-realist movie about death. Benjamin Button is more eschatological than even the doomy Synechdoche, New York, another recent contender in the “way too long” winter glumstakes (this one clocks in just shy of three hours.) The narrative, as written by prolific Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, is a litany of loss, a meditation on mortality.
The movie is impressive in its technical proficiency and massive scope, but it saddens me that it takes its inspiration and title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant, laconic short story about a boy born as an old man who, to the surprise of everyone including himself, ages in reverse. It is my favorite short story in the world.
I couldn’t imagine that this jewel of a story, which occupies less than 20 pages, could be swollen into a two-hour-and-forty-seven-minute epic. Fincher does it by using Fitzgerald’s story as a mere kernel for an elaborate fantasia, which is disappointing if you care, as I do, about Fitzgerald. It’s like a rich, multi-course holiday dinner that leaves you wanting something lighter and more nutritious.
Fitzgerald’s story may not be easily adaptable to the screen, but I can imagine a short film that follows its perfect arc. Fincher doesn’t trust the material, so he makes the movie into F. Gump Fitzgerald. In the hands of Fincher, Fitzgerald’s gossamer magical conceit becomes a heavy, ornate fruitcake of a melodrama.
The movie transplants the story from antebellum
Fincher’s Benjamin is born to a mother who dies in childbirth (a tragedy not in the original story) and a father who is horrified by the infant’s grotesque appearance. Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Benjamin’s arrival is brilliantly comic: Benjamin is born a white-haired, bearded old man. His father, Mr. Button, is alarmed to find him in the nursery, sitting and smoking a cigar.
This kind of humor is lost on Ficher, in whose hands Benjamin Button becomes a tragic story about a deformed infant. Mr. Button takes one look at the monstrously wrinkled, prematurely aged newborn, bundles him up and deposits him on the back stairs of a rooming house, where he is scooped up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a loving, God-fearing African-American old-age home caretaker who longs for a child. Queenie raises the funny-looking, wizened baby, who grows a funny-looking, wizened little old man who gradually, thanks to artful CGI effects, gains youthful vitality, muscle tone and hair, and becomes Brad Pitt.
In the short story, Benjamin falls for and marries the lovely Hildegarde Moncrief, whose parents are horrified that she is marrying an old man. He is in reality much younger than Hildegarde, though as the marriage wears on, she ages and he grows younger. She ceases to attract him, and he becomes enamored of “the gay life” of dancing and parties. The movie calls Benjamin’s inamorata Daisy, thinking perhaps of Gatsby's girlfriend. She is introduced as the precocious little granddaughter of one of the rooming house’s tenants. She is the same age as the elderly-looking Benjamin, but the odd pair are drawn to each other. Benjamin watches from afar as Daisy grows into a swan-necked ballet dancer played by Cate Blanchett.
Benjamin becomes a merchant seaman and battles enemy fire on a tugboat during World War II. He reunites with his father, who, in an example of the movie’s hyper-literalness, owns a button factory, Button’s Buttons. Fitzgerald, never so boringly obvious, made Mr. Button proprietor of a dry-goods store.
There are more pointless adventures as Benjamin grows up and grows younger. He visits a brothel. He has a passionate affair with a married Englishwoman (Tilda Swinton) who wants to swim the English Channel. He pursues Daisy, who turns him down in favor of her exciting bohemian life as a New York dancer. A taxi accident — which is, for no good reason, delineated as a metaphysical event — ends Daisy’s dancing career. She and Benjamin get together, become a swinging ‘60s couple and have a daughter. The window of time when their ages are compatible begins to close, and the increasingly sprightly Benjamin heads off on his motorcycle for regions unknown.
The movie meanders obsessively into meaningless digression – for example, an old man compulsively recounts the many times he was struck by lightning, and Fincher obliges by dramatizing each comical incident in sepia tones. It gets a laugh every time, but it has more to do with Fincher showing off than with telling of Benjamin’s story. The collection of "events" elicits little more than a bored sigh.
The movie’s not very profound theme isn’t “Life is like a box of chocolates,” but “Everybody dies.” The story recounts death after death, funeral after funeral, and it’s peculiarly unmoving. The movie is so stuffed with irrelevant characters, it’s hard to invest any feeling in them. It's reminiscent more of the the Dickens-manque novels of John Irving than the lean, economical writing of Fitzgerald.
At the screening I attended, some audience members were audibly choked up by the mournful denouement, in which Benjamin experiences childhood in reverse. I was struck by the silliness of Benjamin being equated to an Alzheimer’s patient “forgetting how to walk," since he is clearly becoming a baby. In the hands of the hyper-literal Fincher and scenarist Roth, Fitzgerald's magic becomes tragic
Over the years, Fitzgerald has been treated rather poorly by Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola’s embarrassing 1974 The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, may be the nadir of attempted Fitzgerald adaptations. But Fincher and Roth are the only filmmakers I can think of who had the arrogance to completely rewrite him.
Writing about the Gatsby movie, John Simon mused on the problems of adapting great novels for the screen: “Partly out of exploitativeness, but partly also out of stupidity, producers ignore a fact that the very schoolchildren of today have mastered: the form is the content. The shape of the novel on the page, its paragraph and sentence structure, the imagery and cadences of the prose, and all the things that are left to the imagination, these, as much as plot and character, are what the novel is about, and these, in good and great novels, cannot be transposed on screen.”
Nothing in this massive movie, for example, compares to the final paragraph of Fitzgerald’s story, which is as perfect an ending as can be imagined:
“Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.”