Two things about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made me a little, well, curious. First, it starred my favorite actress (Cate Blanchette) and one of my least-favorite actors (Brad Pitt). Second, the story, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a mere 23 pages long and the film clocks in at a whopping two hours, 46 minutes long.
The story, which was first published in Collier’s Magazine in 1921, is about a man named Roger Button whose wife gives birth to a man in his 70s named Benjamin Button. Button grows physically younger as the years pass and thus is given the unheard of opportunity to ‘grow up’—in reverse.
At the beginning of the story, Fitzgerald writes that the story “was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” Fitzgerald plays with the idea that growing younger can ultimately prove to be disastrous.
In a culture obsessed with youth, how can growing younger be a hindrance? Fitzgerald explores just some of the possibilities. For instance, Button’s father is at first embarrassed of him and tries to conceal his age; he falls in love and marries a woman only to grow “younger” than she is; and his own son becomes his elder and is consequently ashamed of him.
At the end of his life, Fitzgerald’s luck as a literary star had run out. After The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise, his work was regularly rejected. Soon, he was all but broke.
In order to pay the bills, Fitzgerald worked in Hollywood writing screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During these years he was hired to tweak Gone with the Wind but proved to be a little too controlling and was fired from the project.
At this time he wrote The Last Tycoon, his novel based on the life of film exec, Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald even parodied himself in The Pat Hobby Stories, written about a penniless, alcoholic screenwriter. It’s unfortunate that Fitzgerald couldn’t be around to see how Hollywood embraced his darling Benjamin Button.
Directed by David Fincher, Fitzgerald’s short story was adapted into an award winning film in 2008. The movie was up for 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It won three of those nominations for Makeup, Visual Effects, and Art Direction.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
(US DVD: 5 May 2009)
The film differs greatly from the short story because the short story (not one of Fitzgerald’s most unforgettable works) was merely a brief imagining of what reverse aging might be like. Screenwriter, Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), took Fitzgerald’s idea, filled in the blanks, and changed some things.
One of the major differences between book and movie is the setting. The short story takes place in Baltimore and the film version takes place in New Orleans. Another inconsistency concerns Button’s physicality. In the book, Benjamin is born a full fledged adult with a mature mentality, but in the movie, he is born infant-sized with a baby’s mental immaturity, yet has the wrinkled skin and weak bones of an old man. Finally in the story he is taken in and eventually cared for by his father while in the movie he is abandoned by his father and instead taken in by a woman named Queenie who works at a nursing home.
Then, of course, there are the embellishments that make the film a full-fledged cinematic experience. It’s as if Fitzgerald laid just the foundation, and from that Roth built a multi-storied house. The movie, while ambitious and long-winded, is inspired and poignant.
Like Roth’s other screenplay, Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button covers a person’s entire life and can therefore drag on a bit. In fact, it could take pages in order to describe the movie plot. The important thing is that Roth kept Fitzgerald’s focus on aging intact. For the film’s Button, growing in reverse proves to be hard on him, especially watching his wife age while he grows younger, but he never feels sorry for himself. As Daisy puts it at one point in the film: “We all end up in diapers.”
Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as Button. His quiet, gentle performance fits Button’s modest character. Cate Blanchett is excellent as Daisy, the woman Benjamin runs into throughout his life and eventually marries. We first meet her as a child (played by Elle Fanning) when Benjamin is also a child, but looks like a man in his 70s. They instantly have a connection.
As Daisy grows up and Benjamin “grows down”, they finally meet in the middle. This is when we get the most of Blanchett on screen. She does a wonderful job of playing an artless 20-something, maturing into middle age, and eventually an old woman. Despite Blanchett’s always-amazing performance, Daisy was a character I never felt a real connection with.
The most enjoyable parts of the film are the journeys Button makes throughout his long, uncanny life and the memorable characters he meets along the way. Some of these people include his adoptive mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a nutty seaman (Jared Harris), a lover of Benjamin’s who swims the English Channel (Tilda Swinton), and an old man who claims to have been struck by lightning seven times (Ted Manson).
The makeup and special effects are seamless. It’s fascinating to watch Button age backwards and everyone else age in natural progression. Each incarnation of Button, apart from the young child and baby at the end, have Pitt’s unmistakable countenance. A good part of the time, Blanchett is in a hospital bed as an old woman, yet she’s very recognizable in the way an old person is recognizable as the same person they were when they were young. The same goes for Henson.
Overall, the film is an exuberant and satisfying adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story about aging and the consequences of that oft-heard lament, “If I could only turn back the clock.”