F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born old and ages backwards has been in print, off and on, for nearly nine decades. That’s a whole human lifetime, in which so much has happened that by now it seems perfectly fair for a film adaptation of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to change things around some.
Fitzgerald’s story is a wry, class-conscious dissection of propriety as a function of physical appearance. The Benjamin Button of the page is a man whose family considered his difference deliberately contrary and inconsiderate, on account of the social embarrassment it engendered, and whose one true love inevitably lost all appeal for him, on account of her failure to keep up with his progressive vitality. Not that it mattered to the society busybodies who never approved of their marriage anyway — first because Benjamin seemed too old for his bride, and later because he seemed too young.
The movie version, as adapted by screenwriter Eric Roth for director David Fincher, mostly does away with those concerns in favor of a broader, more romantic and melancholic rumination on fate and mortality — or, to put it in terms ruefully repeated by a few of its characters, the related notions that “nothing lasts” and that “you never know what’s coming for you.”
True enough: Most of us fall apart as we age, but this lucky son of a bitch turns into Brad Pitt. And although it takes a few heartbreaking tries, and is all the more achingly beautiful for its evident impermanence, he even winds up in a passionately amorous idyll with Cate Blanchett — right when they’re both at their most radiant and fully aware of all that life may contain. Fincher knows we can’t take our eyes off them, as much for their beauty as for the fear of losing it, and he generously lets us look.
The requisite apprehensions about turning a story of only a few pages into a film of feature length are promptly dispatched — or, well, protractedly dispatched; this Curious Case takes up nearly three hours. In something like the way Fincher’s Zodiac, too, was defensibly overlong in order to convey the procedural tedium of investigative police work, this film also uses time as a narrative tool, if only to steep us in wistful awareness of its irrevocable passage. It is at once more affecting than its source material and more affected.
Much of the action is, as Fitzgerald wrote, “bathed in a honey-colored mist,” and Fincher minds the technical details — be they historic minutiae, or arresting special effects, or running jokes like the one about the guy who got struck by lightning seven times and considers himself lucky — with characteristic exactness and enthusiasm. But the director’s best efforts can’t undo the faults of Roth’s script, most obviously that it has less in common with Fitzgerald’s original than with Roth’s own adaptation of Forrest Gump.
That’s right: Here we have another relative simpleton and momma’s boy (the momma in this case being adoptive, and warmly portrayed by Taraji P. Henson), unusually disabled from birth in a way that predisposes him to social passivity, which in turn predisposes him to movieishly exotic experiences. Where Forrest had shrimp, Benjamin has buttons. (Yes, seriously.) Where Forrest had a lone white feather drifting on the winds of chance, Benjamin has a hummingbird. (Don’t ask.) Both men are indeed well traveled, with adventures ranging from war on ocean waters to platitudes on park benches. Both narrate (and over-narrate) their own tales — although Benjamin has help from his beloved, sharing memories with her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a New Orleans hospital deathbed. (And just to be extra sure that dramatic poignancy is achieved, this takes place on the eve of hurricane Katrina’s landfall.)
If there is a discernible Fitzgeraldian touch, it’s that Benjamin, in spite of his affliction, always seems to have certain advantages. The aforementioned Pittness, yes, but other privileges too, like the sensitivities of Claudio Miranda’s cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score. And who wouldn’t want an erotic initiation into the mysteries of caviar and vodka from Tilda Swinton in a Russian hotel?
What’s most distinctive, though, is that Benjamin Button just seems likely to endure. After all, for at least one lifetime, he already has.