Benjamin Button: The rarely active, usually acted-upon central character is only one of his story's major problems.
Ever since 1996 -- when I'd seen Apollo 13, Babe, Sense And Sensibility and, yes, even Il Postino only to watch Braveheart win the Oscar -- I've seen every Best Picture nominee before the ceremony. Since I can't go to AMC's brilliant/horrifying all-day Best Picture marathon tomorrow [Ed. Note: HEY!] I've been catching up slowly. And so, on a full night's sleep, I somewhat reluctantly saw The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.
I found myself baffled by Button's massive nomination haul. Here before me, on the verge of being festooned with highest honors, was a genuinely bad movie.
How bad? Allow me to count the ways. [Warning: the spoilers will fly fast and furious.]
The framing device. Button unfolds as Daisy's daughter, Caroline, reads Benjamin's journal to her on her New Orleans deathbed, with Hurricane Katrina looming. That's two entirely unnecessary elements added to the story. The dying woman looking back on her life is cheap sentimentality, while the Katrina aspect is rife with symbolic weight, but symbolizing what? It's a storytelling gimmick that Means Something, without the slightest indication of what that Something might be.
Moreover, the device invites pointless exchanges that stall the movie. My personal favorite: an agitated Caroline steps out into the hospital hallway for a smoke, where she's promptly told, "You can't smoke here." Thank you, Oscar-nominated, three-hour screenplay!
Much more that went wrong, after the jump...
The old-man baby. The film is fascinated with Button's early years, when he has a child's mind trapped in the body of an old man. Too bad it doesn't care about the mind of an old man trapped in the body of a child; it just kind of blazes past that part. That Benjamin acts like a child, despite being 70-some-odd years old -- remember, Benjamin is only physically aging backwards -- means that director David Fincher has dropped the driving concept of his movie in the final moments.
The movie also casts an actual child as Benjamin during this brief glimpse of the end of his life. If you cast a kid to play the baby-old-man, you have no business slathering Brad Pitt in makeup and CGI to play the old-man-baby.
The failure of "nobility." Benjamin abandons his family because, essentially, he's got an illness that is going to be a burden on them as it progresses. Years later, when Daisy is married, Benjamin returns and she sleeps with him one last time. These two acts are supposed to seem noble and romantic. In actuality, they make Benjamin and Daisy seem like phenomenal jerks.
Directing for idiots. The worst directorial choice occurs with the chain of events that lands Daisy in a Paris hospital. After seeing how little things create a butterfly effect (a friend breaks a shoelace, a stranger forgets her coat, etc.), Benjamin tells us that if just one of those events hadn't happened, Daisy would have crossed the street safely. Fincher illustrates this with a shot of her twirling as a car glides past.
It's a fine little moment, if familiar. But Fincher believes that the audience is too stupid to understand the connection to Daisy in the hospital, so he shows her getting hit by the car, just so there's no confusion.
Note: Because he wasn't present for any of it, there is no way Benjamin, theoretically our narrator, could have known any of the details that caused the ripple effect in the first place. Just food for thought.
Button is a non-entity. They say that you can tell what a movie is about by asking what changes. Nothing changes in Button. He's an entirely passive character, except when he leaves Daisy and their daughter. He joins a tugboat crew because he's invited. He destroys a U-boat by remaining uninvolved in the firefight. He inherits a house and a business when his father dies. He stays in the old-age home he was raised in because he has nothing else to do.
Then again, the movie seems to know that. It ends with a montage of its characters as Benjamin recalls them: "Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance." Those last lines of the film aspire to meaning by wrapping themselves in the trappings of meaning. But they don't actually mean anything.
In fact, they mean less than nothing, because they implicitly ask the question: And what about you, Benjamin? You did none of those things. You did none of anything. Batted around by life like the feather in Forrest Gump with no will of your own, you were born amazing and you died a cipher. The most curious thing about you, Benjamin Button, is that you watched life go by, if in reverse order.