The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Dir. David Fincher. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond

There aren’t any people in this movie, and the clearest statement of how true that is in that final montage that Benjamin (Pitt) narrates over. There are plenty of bodies in the movie, and each of those bodies has had a characteristic ascribed to then. Some know Shakespeare, some are artists, some swim, some dance. We look at these people and remember the things they have done, too: cooked and cleaned for old people, captained a boat, taught Benjamin how sex works, kept secrets from her daughter. But it doesn’t make them people for them to have had done things, or known things; the same is true of any automaton or computer. Watching that little montage reminded me of how fundamentally dehumanizing this picture is, how ignorant it is of things like wants or beliefs that do signify a kind of humanity; The movie’s most audacious sequence is the one in which Benjamin (who somehow knows all of the interlocking pieces, like God?) takes us through how Daisy was hit by a car, and how that was brought about by a series of accidents and idiosyncrasies. People don’t make choices in that sequence; events just happen to them. There are Calvinists who believe in more free will than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button believes in, and the Calvinists who don’t at least believe in the meaningfulness of souls that none of these individuals appear to have. It’s why the movie’s most memorable character is the guy who’s gotten hit by lightning seven times. There’s nothing else to know about him, and in the same way that some vagueness usually advances humor, it’s funny seeing this guy get celestial blows in this old-timey footage. It helps that he’s not a person, but a punchline.

The shuffling from event to event in this movie has brought on some comparisons to Forrest Gump, and like GumpBenjamin Button is a long movie which seems to be moving along for the sake of hitting its own beats, hoping we will connect to concepts like “star-crossed love” or “goopy Southern accent” or something like that rather than having to actually engage with the characters themselves, whose hopes and dreams are as light as the feather floating at the beginning of Forrest Gump and worn as the pages of Benjamin Button’s hilariously convenient diary/autobiography. Is Forrest interesting, or were the ’60s interesting? Is Benjamin interesting, or is his condition interesting? Are Jenny and Daisy ever more than pin-ups on bedroom walls?

When you don’t care much about people in your story, it leads you to make decisions like the ones Benjamin Button makes about African-Americans. Between seeing this at 17 and seeing it again recently, I had completely forgotten that much of this movie takes place in a New Orleans-area hospital in August 2005 while Katrina is bearing down on the region. I think the reason they did it that way is to give the recounting of Benjamin’s diary some urgency, like maybe Caroline (Ormond) will run out of time to read it before her mother, Daisy (Blanchett) must be moved; the thunder and rain also helps to make it more dramatic. Of course, one might also argue that the fact that Daisy appears to have an enumerated number of breaths remaining is cause for more urgency than the hurricane, and that Katrina was not just some thunderstorm but probably the single worst failing in domestic civil rights of the aughts. This movie really can’t think of a reason why Hurricane Katrina might be an insensitive or bizarre choice when all that’s required is a thunderstorm, because this movie cannot imagine a world in which white people are decentralized and black people are people with agency. Taraji P. Henson gets to do “You is smart, you is kind, you is important” with the young Dick Cheney lookalike she’s raising out of the goodness of her heart, and got an Oscar nomination out of it because that’s what white Oscar voters like to see. (At least “life is like a box of chocolates” has a little bit of zing to it…”nothing lasts” is such an old phrase that it’s in danger of proving itself untrue.) Mahershala Ali has a scene where he recounts that his grandfather worked for John Wilkes Booth and brought home Shakespeare for Tizzy to learn to read by; the potential traumatic history of the family is elided by something folksy, “You never know what’s coming for you.” You never know what’s coming for you? That‘s all that Tizzy has to say about that legacy? The first person who tries to give Benjamin a little fun is Oti (Rampai Mohadi), an African Pygmy who shows up at the nursing home and takes Benjamin out for a root beer; he then leaves Benjamin, who has never left the nursing home, to find his way home when the prospect of sex presents itself to him. The movie does a little bit of ’60s signifying, but doesn’t ever bring the Civil Rights movement into it. Benjamin eats, prays, and loves through the ’60s and ’70s rather than ever involving himself in the fight against injustice that he must have understood, being raised by African-Americans in New Orleans. No one in the nursing home is racist; they are kindly, or quirky, or lightning-struck, but bigoted never. When the people in a story like this are subsumed entirely by the plot, it only serves to make the people belonging to marginalized groups into the kinds of racist stereotypes that people seem to believe belong to decades before. The Deep South, for Roth, is magnolia and gumbo, but it is absolutely immaterial to him who would have tended the trees or made the food. The movie isn’t “about” any of these ideas, granted, and a movie can be about whatever it chooses. I just don’t know that a movie can claim that cover if it hasn’t even considered what it means to center Cate Blanchett and Julia Ormond during Katrina.

In 2008, two movies came out in which Brad Pitt did work that reminds me of what Tom Hardy has been doing for the past several years: he tried to undercut his star image by denying us the full pleasure of his appearance. In Burn After Reading, Pitt plays this total dimwit with bad hair and a rubber smile; in Benjamin Button, Pitt gets under some old-age makeup. For the Coens, there was an acting challenge in there too, and it’s one of the first times I ever saw him and thought he might actually be able to act a little. In Benjamin Button, as a romantic lead, Pitt is not doing anything that interesting, or that different from what we’d seen already in movies like Legends of the Fall or Interview with the Vampire. He’s so good-looking that it’s hard to look away, but there is a stony quality in his acting that I think has been reevaluated a little too kindly given Pitt’s last decade. That blankness is just kind of blank in Benjamin Button, when Pitt is letting the elevator pitch and a few hours in the makeup trailer do most of the work for him. Tilda Swinton is doing adequate work (certainly just adequate by Swinton standards) as the wife of a British diplomat in Russia who uses Benjamin as a way to fill the cold nights, but there’s not much that Pitt returns besides doing accent work. It’s just the two of them, in that dusky yellow that Fincher was fond of at the time, and there’s an opportunity to believe in the chemistry between them. But there isn’t any more chemistry between the two of them than there is between Pitt and Blanchett later in the movie. There are moments which we are supposed to read as romantic (sex on a mattress in the living room, flowers after a performance), but which are too hackneyed to stand alone. Like Swinton, Blanchett is trying her best, but Pitt, by that point looking more like the guy we’ve known since the early ’90s, is wooden. It’s telling that Blanchett working more or less solo is the best part of the movie. When Benjamin turns into a little boy with dementia, essentially, Daisy (conveniently freed of her convenient husband via his death) takes care of him like a mother would. It’s such a shocking change from the romance that the movie wanted us to care about for so long that it actually demands some attention, and Blanchett on her own is so good, saying normal mom things with her mouth and saying something different with her eyes, that it almost makes us believe that the movie had something interesting to say. But when everything is preordained like it is in Benjamin Button, you could watch one of those really involved marble tracks instead, save time, get the same message, and have time to take a nap.

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