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A curious lack of feeling in Pitts’ Benjamin Button

by Glen Baity

A curious lack of feeling in Pitts’ Benjamin Button

We age, and then we die. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who grows young while others grow old, seems like it might have something new to say about this inescapable fact of life. It does not. Benjamin (played for most of the film by Brad Pitt) ages as well, and he also dies. He just gets to the fun parts later than the rest of us, and he’ll look like a cherub when it’s his time. But as it turns out, the most surprising thing about this Curious Case is how fantastical it isn’t. The story begins at Benjamin’s difficult birth, which claims the life of his mother. His father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng), horrified at this event and at Benjamin’s appearance (though the size of a newborn, he resembles an 80-year-old man), abandons him on the doorstep of a New Orleans home for the elderly. There, under the eye of his beloved adopted mother (Taraji P. Henson) Benjamin grows up, becoming first an old man, and steadily progressing into a younger and younger body. When he’s about 10 (and his body is in its mid-70s), he meets Daisy (Madison Beaty, later played by Cate Blanchett) and falls in love. For the rest of his life, he’ll try to meet her when they’re both approximately the same age physically and mentally. It won’t be an easy journey, or a short one. Benjamin will leave home on a tugboat bound for Russia, fight briefly in World War II and go through an affair or two, while Daisy pursues her dreams of becoming a ballerina in New York City. All of this is entertaining enough in the film’s first 90 minutes. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) in his most ambitious project to date, casts some kind of spell in this adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. His portrayal of the Big Easy in the early 20 th century is rich and inviting, full of lamp-lit barrooms and raucous swing. It’s interesting, and not a little charming, to watch an elderly Benjamin learn to play like a kid — certain scenes reminded me of the magical “Kick the Can” portion of the Twilight Zone movie. But the film is principally a love story, and as it presses on past the two-hour mark, something about it begins to feel off. It’s largely because screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) hasn’t given his main character much of a personality. Once you look past his genetic quirk, Benjamin is one of the most passive protagonists you’ll see in a film this year, and it makes it difficult to participate in his story. Pitt is an engaging actor, but he’s rudderless here, and his lack of any real passion renders the central storyline — the love affair with Daisy — kind of dull. Blanchett summons some fire for her role, though her character isn’t exactly likeable, but Benjamin remains a blank slate throughout. The fact that it takes the film so long to get to the meat of the story only makes the lack of payoff more disappointing. Button also unfolds in a series of flashbacks, a framing that feels a bit labored and unnecessary. As a terminally ill Daisy lies on her deathbed, her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads to her from Benjamin’s diary, which Daisy has kept, unopened, for years. For some reason, the story is set in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Crescent City. This is evidently supposed to symbolize something, though I was unclear on exactly what — Benjamin might be a strange creation, but he’s hardly a force of nature. I’m a fan of Fincher’s, and I’ve been looking forward to Button for a while, so I’m disappointed to find it so lacking. The CGI wizardry used to vary the actors’ ages certainly looks good, but the characters underneath are at best uninteresting and at worst irritating and unlikeable. And whether backwards or forwards, at nearly three hours Benjamin Button feels like a lifetime.

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