When did the passive protagonist become desirable? I mean, Beowulf didn’t know interesting people; he was Beowulf!, that’s why they named the story after him. A hero’s job is to act. It’s the mass of humanity that lead lives of quiet desperation. That’s why we don’t (or didn’t use to) sing their praises. Be somebody – then be a protagonist. The problem with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that – aside from aging backwards – its hero is as memorable as an envelope. He waits his whole life for a girl and then he turns into a baby. If he were a Viking they’d have fed him to something interesting. Illness does not make him charismatic.
In a storybook version of New Orleans where racism doesn’t exist and aging is like a second childhood, Benjamin Button is left on a doorstep. He’s just been born, but he looks ancient. Bitten by the magic-realism bug, he’s aging backwards. His story begins in 1918. Over the next seventy years, Benjamin uncrumples – like a wad of paper turned back into a tree – every year making him leaner, healthier and more wooden. He meets a girl; becomes a sailor and… and… That’s his lot. Most of the time he lives in a retirement home; taking slow, meditative steps through life, never ceasing to be contemplative. He’s an observer. He has librarian genes. When Benjamin has an orgasm he probably cries out “ssshhhhhhh!”
Brad Pitt is so boring as Benjamin that at times you wonder if he’s awake. He has one all-purpose expression for the movie, whether his mother has died or if he’s ordering coffee: blocky – like new-cut money – so that all life seems ragged and juicy next to him. Pitt’s Benjamin is the sort of man who’s damn lucky he looks like Pitt, so even his blankness seems enticing. But you never get any feel for him other than for his patience. He’s the worst of men: a hero who’s prepared to wait. It doesn’t occur to director David Fincher or to writer Eric Roth that waiting is a crime in movies. We all wait! That’s why “action!” is a word gifted to movies. To watch Benjamin potter about is like watching a winning lottery ticket sit idle. He shouldn’t be allowed a life on the shelf! And yet there he is. Three hours on screen and his biggest dream is to own a house with his girlfriend.
Cate Blanchett is good as The Girl, even if she does love a door-stop. Sadly, the movie finds it necessary to have her in old-age makeup telling us the story (damn you Titanic! This book-end bullshit is all your fault), but at least she isn’t out-acted by prosthetics. The main problem for Blanchett is that she’s playing an uber-version of Hollywood’s ideal of womanhood; that is, a woman who, when young, finds old men sexy, and who, when old, knows well-enough to ask for a divorce. I particularly loved the scene where Blanchett can’t bear for Pitt to see her looking fifty (a scene which is played like Blanchett was Dracula and Pitt was the sun). The movie is no more about graceful acceptance of age than a Miss World contest. What it really says is: if Benjamin Button had a sister, she’d be shunned.
Where the real David Fincher went is anyone’s guess. The director who made Fight Club takes a nap in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Like Spielberg in the wilderness years, he still knows what a movie should look like… just not what a movie is. People will say Benjamin Button looks good, but it’s a catalogue-look. The movie is too soothing. It’s as emotional as a pillow fight. Yes, there’s death, and the movie deals with mortality – but only the same way a show home speaks of death, only the way a shopping mall speaks of eternity.
Years ago, it wasn’t enough for a three hour movie to show you the world; it had to have a script that knew something too. Lawrence of Arabia could have got by on battles, and the desert, and the physical beauty of Peter O’Toole – but why not have a great script to boot? The trouble for Benjamin Button is that it’s written by someone who thinks “it’s never too late” is a profound statement. Eric Roth would have been lucky to be fetching coffee on the Lawrence set. There’s such a dearth of wisdom in Benjamin Button, it could have been written by a fax machine. It’s a movie about a face-lift that lasts seventy years. That summary is almost literal.