Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

(This movie is the 513th out of the 1,149 complete list of 'Films to See Before You Die,' which I am working my way through)

Director: David Fincher

Rapid, Spoiler-Free Summary

In New Orleans in 1919, just as the First World War ends, a young boy named Benjamin is born with a puzzling malady. Though a newborn infant, he has the physical decrepitude of a person well into his eighties. Over the ensuing eight-plus decades, Benjamin not only survives, but ages in reverse.

While undergoing his lifelong age reversal, Benjamin has travels and experiences many of the joys and sorrows of human life. He eventually goes off to faraway lands, becomes involved in World War II, discovers pleasures of the flesh, and falls in love. Though few of these experiences is especially unique, Benjamin's odd condition results in a very singular perspective for both him and those who are closest to him.

What Did I Think?

It's not a bad movie, but I'm not altogether sure what the point of it was. And this isn't what you want viewers of your movie to feel when you offer them two hours and forty-five minutes of story.

The idea of a protagonist who ages in reverse is certainly interesting enough. The mere concept begins to raise certain questions about how such a fantastic person would function and interact with others, and how such a condition would affect the perceptions of the inflicted and those who come to know him for long periods of time. We do, indeed get this in the movie right away, as the grotesquely aged newborn Benjamin is immediately abandoned by his father. As Benjamin advances into and through his childhood years, living at a retirement home under the care of the matronly young African American caretaker, the only people who seem to offer him any understanding are the extremely aged with whom he lives.

The 20-something year old Benjamin. The movie flirts
with some interesting themes as we see how people act
towards him, but it never plumbs the depths as much as
it could.
There's certainly a notion here to chew over - how one's physical appearance has much more influence over how others treat us than our words or even actions. Though Benjamin has the size, mental maturity, and behavior of a very young child, none outside of the home looks at him with anything but disgust. The end of the film offers and interesting counter-point to this, when the elderly-yet-childish-looking Benjamin returns to the very same retirement home. When taken together, these bookends of the film may offer the most profound statement that the story has to offer.

And yet, I felt that such poignant themes were lacking. After all, what is the point of having a character like Benjamin is you're not going to use his most distinguishing feature to do some social exploration? And make no mistake - his singular physical condition is his most distinguishing feature, and this is perhaps the biggest weakness of the movie. There's really not much personality to him. Once you get beyond what makes him "curious," you're just left with a plain old nice guy. Hardly anything to spend nearly three hours watching. Which brings me back to the question: if you're not going to imbue him with any outstanding personality traits, then you'd better use him as a foil to examine some more engaging topics. The movie doesn't either one with much imagination or depth.

Another, lesser, issue that I have with the movie stems from the nerdier part of my personality: the physiological aspect of Benjamin's condition. Many viewers probably wouldn't bother to spend energy on this, but I couldn't help question why, at the end of his life, he would shrink down to child-size. He wasn't born the size of a full-grown adult, so why would the reverse happen? Yes, I know that it's all pure fantasy, but I'm just looking for a little logical consistency.

On a much larger scale, is there any possible way that Benjamin would not have been taken away by military scientists to become a lab rat? He never makes much effort to hide his condition, and it's hard to imagine him just coasting through life without at least a visit from parties interested in a walking miracle who may hold the key to the fountain of youth. This is also never so much as mentioned or explored. Would it have killed someone to at least try and insert a touch of consideration for it?

It all comes out as very mediocre. The cinematography is highly polished, so the film is a pleasure to look at. The acting is solid, and the human emotions are sincere and exhibited well. These help carry along a lengthy movie that resulted in, to me, a subtle shoulder shrug.

(513 films down, 636 to go before I die.)