So we return to New Orleans, circa 1919, where the merriment attending the end of World War I is interrupted by the arrival of a baby boy (played, in a manner of speaking, by Brad Pitt) who emerges from the womb looking like a midget Methuselah. His mother having died during the birth, his father terrified by the sight of him, the strange infant is swiftly deposited on the doorstep of an old folks home. There, the childless, gold-hearted, black proprietress (Taraji P. Henson, though it could just as well be Butterfly McQueen) christens the boy Benjamin and opts to raise him as her own.
We're already a long way from Fitzgerald, whose Benjamin Button came into the world not only looking like an old man but with the fully developed body, wizened mind, and ornery temperament of one too. But it's clear from the start that Roth and Fincher have considerably different aims. Closer in spirit to the Roth-scripted Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button is to the first half of the 20th Century what Gump was to the second — a panorama of the American experience as seen from the perspective of a wide-eyed Candide.
Here as there, Roth reduces our complex times to a parade of shockingly straight-faced kitsch: A hellfire-and-brimstone tent revivalist imbues Benjamin with the holy spirit; a pygmy Lothario serves as his introduction to the outside world; a drunken Irish tugboat captain shows him how to be a man. But where Gump actively trivialized history, Benjamin Button effectively ignores it. Although Benjamin briefly exchanges fire with a German submarine during WWII and Hurricane Katrina makes a cameo toward the end, this movie about a white baby raised by a black adoptive mother during the inglorious years of the Jim Crow South never so much as once addresses race.
The strived-for atmosphere is whimsical and picaresque, the results — save for Benjamin's brief dalliance with the coolly amused wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy in Murmansk — mostly tedious. Very little about the first half of the film invites us in or gives inner life to the characters, leaving only the admittedly fascinating spectacle of seeing Pitt's computer-aged face digitally grafted on to the several pint-sized performers who help to embody Benjamin over the first two decades of his existence. From a technological standpoint, this is rivaled only by the later "reverse aging" effects that convincingly restore Pitt to his Thelma & Louise-era visage and that should, if nothing else, establish Benjamin Button as a cult film with the Botox crowd.
The movie finally gives off a spark or two at exactly the midpoint, when Benjamin is reunited with ballet dancer Daisy (Blanchett, reverse-aged herself to resemble a 20-something ingénue), whom he loved from afar as a boy but now can see socially without causing a scandal. The trajectory is obvious, although Pitt and Blanchett surrender themselves to it with reasonable conviction: she's getting older while he's getting younger; eventually, they'll meet in the middle somewhere, but that too can not last. "Will you still love me when I have acne, when I wet the bed, when I'm afraid of what's under the stairs?" he asks of her. But it speaks to the treacly nature of the entire film that most of the scenario's potential unpleasantries are carefully elided. Unlike Fitzgerald's Button, whose adolescence and eventual infancy bring with them a series of public and private humiliations, Roth and Fincher's Benjamin enters his second senescence in relative comfort, attended to by the ever-loyal Daisy.
Perhaps it's no wonder, considering producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall are longtime Steven Spielberg associates, that one of Benjamin Button's closest cinematic precursors is "Kick the Can," the Spielberg-directed segment of 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which the denizens of a retirement home briefly revert to their childhood selves only to realize that, no matter what age you are, into every life some heartache must fall. There, the folk wisdom took a mere 30 minutes to dispense; here, it takes the better part of three hours, which is odd indeed for a movie so concerned with the preciousness of time.
It was just last year that Fincher delivered a great film, also three hours, on the subject of time. But whereas, in Zodiac — to say nothing of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York — the passing years wrap around the characters like a vise, catching them up obsessively in a single distended moment, in Benjamin Button, the ravages of time are trumped by a kind of eternal, undying love that mere physics is at a loss to contain. And Fincher, try as he might, scarcely seems able to buy into Roth's brand of Harlequin-romance hokum. For Benjamin Button to succeed on its own terms, there shouldn't be a dry eye left in the house. Yet, when the lights came up, mine were like sandpaper.
Mostly, the film is an orgy of excess in which Fincher, armed with a huge budget, some of the best technicians in the business, and every available brush in the digital paintbox, indulges his passion for luxuriant image-making with little regard for whether the story merits (or can withstand) such grandiose treatment. "All I have is my story," Benjamin tells us in voice-over early on in the film. The true worth of any story, though, lies in the telling, and some stories aren't worth telling in the first place. Life, after all, is too short.