I’ve been perplexed by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads all movies with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Yes, it’s beautifully crafted, with transformative makeup and digital effects to support its central concept — a man ages in reverse while those he knows get older. And the acting, too, is involving.
Brad Pitt unsentimentally plays Benjamin as an everyman, and his New Orleans accent has a pleasantly melodic ring. Cate Blanchett is spectacularly attractive as his great love, Daisy.
But this film is roughly three hours, and what is its point, exactly? Yes, it goes to great length to illustrate a truism — you can’t turn back the hands of time. But to quote the philosopher Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Further, Pitt’s Benjamin, while a New Orleans-born everyman, is not an especially smart one. A follower rather than a leader, passive rather than active, he has no special wisdom to impart or lessons to learn from his unusual circumstances. He seems to know that his life is a drag on others, which is why he pulls away from Daisy when she needs him most. But he just plods along toward the inevitable.
Even Benjamin’s journal, discovered after his death — the key plot device — lacks insight; it’s just description. He is incapable of truly enlightening self-reflection. That makes him a tragic figure, and the movie has an overall morose, melancholy and fatalistic tone to match, aided by David Fincher’s direction and its cinematography. One passage is even set in Murmansk, Russia, which looks to be one of the coldest places on Earth.
Benjamin is like an unfunny Seinfeld character — no lessons learned. Or like … George W. Bush? I’ve been wondering if this film can be read as a veiled allegory — or epitaph — for America under the vacuous Bush. An epitaph not just for the Bush Administration, now mercifully departed, but for what’s left of the country — war and recession — in the debris of his hurricane-like wake. The film is not hateful, not angry. It might even see him as a victim, too. But it is filled with a rueful post-9/11 sadness.
In that regard, we are like the film’s aged and dying Daisy, in a hospital bed in New Orleans, retreating into the “fantasy” of Benjamin as her daughter reads from his journal. Is there a parallel to our own fantasy of the past eight years — that the endlessly rising home prices of the unregulated Bush years would take care of us in the future?
This notion came to me because of the ominous way the film starts. As Hurricane Katrina approaches, the hospitalized Daisy wonders what will come next. Katrina, coming about a year after the “re-election” of Bush in 2004, was the event that finally exposed his incompetence even to his supporters. And things really went to hell after that. So making it such a specific reference point in this movie encourages a political reading.
So too does the central metaphoric symbol, also introduced early in the film. After World War I, while everyone in New Orleans is celebrating victory, a Monsieur Gateau creates a train-station clock that works backwards. “So perhaps the boys we lost in the war may come back again,” he explains with doomed naivety. (The device is reminiscent of the French anti-World War I classic, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, in which slain soldiers return to life.)
Benjamin, although he’s born at the same time and, indeed, lives backwards, learns nothing from that clock. The parallel? In America, Bush launched a war in Iraq under false pretenses, still with no clear end. He learned nothing from the past, even while giving us another Vietnam.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I’m desperately trying to read something into the pointlessness of Benjamin’s life. The film’s origins are in a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that is set in the 19th century, so the film is hardly meant as a faithful adaptation.
And Fincher’s other films seem to have a dark, pessimistic, metaphoric attitude. Certainly Se7en, Fight Club and The Game, and reviewers called 1992’s grim Alien3 an AIDS allegory. His last film, Zodiac, about a real-life San Francisco murderer who was never caught, had a sociopolitical context.
The principal screenwriter, Eric Roth, wrote Forrest Gump, a film I detest, but more recently he contributed to Munich and The Good Shepherd (about the CIA), two political films that take a dim view of the costs to a person’s psyche of endless war.
And one other thing: Benjamin, as born, is an aberration — a freakish event, a baby in his eighties. Bush’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2000 was similar, losing the popular vote and needing a partisan Supreme Court decision to stop a Florida recount of disputed ballots. And it’s been all downhill — or backwards — from there.
So what, then, is to be learned from Benjamin Button? An aphorism is repeated several times in the film, “You never know what’s coming for you.” That’s post-Bush America, all right.