The spurious case of Benjamin Button

It is fitting that this soulless Brad Pitt vehicle won gongs for visual effects and make-up but nothing for acting, story, direction.

David Berkley

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It would be fair to say that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button got what it deserved at the Oscars this month: a technical gong or two for best make-up and visual effects, and not a whole lot else. That award haul is an adequate representation of the achievements of a film that flatters to deceive, and imagines itself to be a whole lot cleverer than it is.

The premise of the film, adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name, is the examination of a life lived in reverse. What would be the fate, trials and tribulations of a man who is born with the withered body of an 85-year-old but in the frame of newborn baby, and who progresses/regresses through life in the opposite direction to which nature has made us accustomed, gradually growing younger through old and middle age, adulthood, youth and puberty, until finally he dies with the outward appearance of an infant?

We first catch a glimpse of the shrivelled-up face of Benjamin Button (later to be played by Brad Pitt) on the steps of a New Orleans residential home, where he is abandoned by his father. The boy is adopted and raised by Queenie (Taraji P Henson), the black nurse in the home who Benjamin calls ‘momma’. Here he soon meets five-year-old Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett in her adult years), the grand-daughter of a resident, who is to become the love of his life.

I have no inherent objection to far-fetched and fantastical storylines, but this one struck me as exceptionally silly. Unless you are making a pure fantasy film – the kind that is generally of interest only to geeks – then unrealistic elements do not enhance plots; they only work if they add something to our understanding or appreciation of life as it is in reality. In following a life lived in reverse, from an old-age birth to an infant death, the makers of Benjamin Button seem to believe they will automatically make some earth-shattering philosophical point about the nature of time and fleetingness of life and love. But they don’t.

The main problem is that they somehow contrive to make the central plot device incidental to the actual plot. And the plot itself quickly lapses into what is essentially the most ordinary, benign and predictable love story schema imaginable: boy/old man meets girl; boy/old man falls in love with girl; boy/old man loses girl; boy/old man reunites with girl after much time apart; boy/old man and girl are forced to separate for reasons beyond their control, this time for good. Granted, the reason for their final separation is an original one, but Shakespeare was peddling the basic star-crossed lovers theme over 400 years ago, and doing a much better job of it, too.

And boy is the film long. Considering that it portrays a man’s 85 years from wrinkly birth to fresh-faced death, you might think the audience would struggle to keep up with the furious pace of Benjamin Button as years fly by in a matter of minutes; in fact, at over two-and-a-half hours long, it has all the pace of an Oscars ceremony hosted by Stephen Hawking.

Perhaps it is only natural that a film trying to make a serious point about the nature of time feels that it has to take up a lot of the stuff in order to do so. However, I’m starting to think that directors of films over two hours in length should be required to submit evidence to the BBFC before the film is approved for general release, in order to justify those precious extra minutes drained from our lives. Apocalypse Now would survive such a test; Benjamin Button wouldn’t.

Once we get past the novelties and few comic moments offered by practicalities of ‘de-ageing’ – such as a man losing his virginity at the apparent age of 70 – there’s very little to hold one’s interest in this film; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button becomes less and less curious with each slow, ponderous minute it drags on for. This is some fall from grace considering director David Fincher and Brad Pitt’s previous collaborations, the fantastically dark and subversive Fight Club and Seven. With a stark absence of any real stimulation, intellectual or otherwise, you might watch ‘The Spurious Case of Benjamin Button’ and, like me, be underwhelmed to point of pun-inducing tedium for at least the last hour of it.

David Berkley is a former intern at spiked.

Watch the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

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