Clever concept too thin for three-hour extravaganza
Benjamin Button “ages backward.” He’s born an elderly geezer, and he gets progressively younger and younger as the 60-plus years of his life go by.
That’s the premise of a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of this new David Fincher extravaganza, with Brad Pitt in the title role. The original is minor Fitzgerald at best, a curiosity untypical of its author, one of the masters of modern American fiction. The Fincher version is updated, expanded, and much revamped, but it remains stuck with a basic concept that sounds provocative but proves lacking in genuine dramatic substance.
In both versions, Benjamin is a charming sort of misfit, a doomed innocent navigating the margins of American history while burdened with a fanciful and unlikely physical condition. But neither version really has anywhere to go apart from the clever playing out of a life story ruled by the arbitrary ironies of that reverse-aging concept.
In Fitzgerald this becomes the occasion for an imaginative display of literary wit, and with Fincher it’s a set of technical challenges—make-up and CGI effects for his actors, period settings, vignettes of historical spectacle, memory images and flashback structures, etc.
The short, peculiar life of Benjamin Button (1860-1922 originally, 1918-1985 in the film) now seems worth the 20 or so pages Fitzgerald gives it in print, but the nearly three hours of big-budget sprawl in Fincher’s film serve mainly to magnify the futility of this particular enterprise.
The assembled actors (Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji Henson, Julia Ormond, Jared Harris, etc.) don’t really have much to do in all this. And the elaborately episodic screenplay (by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord) sounds more impressive in synopsis than it proves to be in the actual playing-out.
The chief invention of the Fincher-Roth version—a convoluted love story centering on Benjamin’s beloved Daisy (Blanchett)—makes this curious case into a species of dry-eyed soap opera and leaves us with the possibility that each of the characters is only a by-stander catching a glimpse of someone else’s life story. But that also leaves the whole operation without any real emotional center, and little coherence apart from its assorted technical displays.