Monday, December 29, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


I saw this yesterday and, overall, I found it to be very well-made and thoroughly engaging, though somewhat hollow and unsatisfying. The highlight of the film was assuredly the technical wizardry that allowed Brad Pitt to reverse age from the elderly man I can't ever see him becoming to the eerie exactness of his younger self from the beginning of his fame. It could make for an interesting game, years from now, going back and trying to guess which Brad Pitt is the real one. Probably none of them. And, despite the nearly three-hour running time, Fincher paced it with enough tricks to keep it from ever feeling too long.

There is a truly amazing sequence near the beginning of the film, where a clockmaker, having constructed a clock that runs backwards, wearily expresses his wish that he might rewind time and thereby bring back the young men who died fighting in the recent war. As he speaks, the film illustrates his sentiments with images of dead soldiers on the battlefield rising up and running backwards. The combination of his words and the visuals nearly brought me to tears, but the rest of the film would not approach that level of power.

I'm comfortable admitting right now that, if there was a point to the story, then I have no idea what it was. Perhaps I was too distracted by a certain minor detail that continues to nag at me. For that, I must apologize, especially as the rest of this post will be concentrating exclusively on that quibble.

At birth, Benjamin had the body of an infant, but in the cadaverous condition of an old man at the end of his life. I immediately wondered, then, how the film would handle his demise. Would he end his life in the body of an old man, but with the smooth skin of a baby? That would have made sense to me. As the rest of us go through life as babies on one end and then broken down old folks on the other, so too would Benjamin end his life the opposite of how he began. Or would he, as in other tales of reverse aging I've come across, shrink back into the body of a baby? Disappointingly, that was indeed the path that the film chose, and it simply made no sense. How could he be a baby on both ends? It is a fantasy, of course, and the impossible case of Benjamin Button defies logic from the outset, but it should at least possess thematic logic, which I don't feel it does.

Indeed, despite how technically impressive it was, Benjamin's aging process was the most troubling aspect of the film for me, because it didn't seem consistent. Again, as a baby, Benjamin's proportions were the same as a normal baby's. It was just that his health and condition were decrepit. Yet, as he grew up, his head grew larger at a much faster pace than a normal child's. It became just creepy, seeing the child Benjamin, with his adult-sized cranium and the recognizable face of Brad Pitt, at mischief with the love of his life, Daisy, who was, at the time, just a normal ten-year-old girl. For that matter, what was the basis of Daisy's infatuation with Benjamin? Was she some kind of pervert?

The fantastical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which this film adaptation took almost nothing except the title and the aging-in-reverse concept, approached things differently. In the original story, Benjamin was a full-grown septuagenarian at birth, already able to speak and with the attitude and interests (or lack thereof) of a tired old geezer. The nature of his delivery was never discussed, and if the film is far-fetched, then the short story was completely ludicrous. But it made thematic sense to me, as the character really was living life in reverse.

Taking the concept further, I picture a man who begins as worm food, which assembles itself into the body of an old man six feet under, who then arises out of the ground with all the memories of the life he will lead. The moments in his life are then forgotten as soon as they are experienced, and he ends it by crawling into the womb of the woman who will become his mother, where he shrinks even further until he vanishes from existence. No, I wouldn't want to see such a story. Even as I write this, I acknowledge that the idea is both insane and disgusting.

But the movie's premise was so fascinating that I couldn't help wondering, and I was disappointed that the film didn't care to really address my curiosity. Why, if Abraham Lincoln came back to life, I would certainly like to hear stories of his life from the man himself, or perhaps ask his take on current events, but my first question, assuming I didn't already know, would be "How did you come back?" My second would be "What was it like being dead?" Am I being ridiculous?

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