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Home / Articles / Archive / Film & TV /  Cinema | Literary Criticism: Benjamin Button struggles to make an allegory work in concrete form.
Film & TV

Cinema | Literary Criticism: Benjamin Button struggles to make an allegory work in concrete form.

By Scott Renshaw
Posted // December 24,2008 - Here’s a helpful comparison for understanding why F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button really shouldn’t have been made into a movie: Consider Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a “gigantic vermin.” How would that transformation be realized for the screen? What would the “vermin” look like? What kind of special effects would be required? Would the actor playing Gregor Samsa be inside a suit of some kind, or just providing an off-screen voice? n

All of those would be important logistical questions for a filmmaker—and they miss the point entirely. Metamorphosis—like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—is an allegory that begins with a purely literary conceit. And as viewers start spending time on the nuts and bolts of “how did they do that?” they’ve lost sight of what that purely literary conceit was supposed to convey.

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Director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) nevertheless attempt to tell the story of the titular Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who is born on Armistice Day in 1918, and left on a New Orleans old-age home’s doorstep by his father (Jason Flemyng) when his mother dies in childbirth, to be raised by a nurse (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin’s unique predicament? He was born as an old man—or, at least in the source material he is born as an old man. In the film, he’s born as a special-effects baby with a wrinkled old-man face and wrinkled old-man limbs. As Benjamin ages in reverse, Brad Pitt’s heavily made-up face is superimposed over a succession of variously sized bodies. For (easily) the first 45 minutes, this is the focal point of the movie: an odd-looking digital amalgam of a wrinkled Pitt and a stunt torso.

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/Once Pitt is fully himself, the story settles into a more comfortable—albeit expansive—storytelling rhythm. Benjamin goes to work on a merchant ship with a high-spirited captain (Jared Harris); he has an affair with the married wife (Tilda Swinton) of an English diplomat in Russia; he re-connects with his “childhood” friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Pitt has always proved somewhat elusive as a straight dramatic actor, and it’s even tougher when he’s playing a character who’s such an enigma. But once Fincher and Roth home in on the romance between Benjamin and Daisy—and the inevitability of their growing apart—they find an emotional hook that keeps the focus as sharp as Claudio Miranda’s rich cinematography.

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But there’s still the question of what, ultimately, this odd little tale is supposed to be about. Roth isn’t afraid to reach for grand gestures, setting the framing narrative—in which Daisy’s grown daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from Benjamin’s diary while at Daisy’s hospital bedside—during the hours before Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans in 2005. It’s a ballsy move, but it’s hard to figure how it adds anything to a story that already deals with life, death and the sweep of time in a hundred different ways. As a result, it becomes yet another source of distraction—and that’s the best-case scenario, assuming it doesn’t also strike you as a ghoulish misappropriation of a tragedy.

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Yet while Benjamin Button’s chronology spans decades, its ideas don’t actually feel particularly sweeping. Roth distills it all down to stuff along the lines of “life is short and precious, and you should live it to the fullest while you have the chance.” Simplistic though it is, the message does prove potent—only in a slightly more on-the-nose way than it does in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which had similar ambitions. Kaufman’s film also felt like a literary abstraction struggling to find concrete form, but he had the bad commercial sense to make his movie coldly tragic, instead of warmly tragic.

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That’s really the only explanation for why Benjamin Button finds itself an early favorite for the Oscars: People are responding to the fact that they can tell its heart is in the right place. Fincher and Roth don’t particularly care if you think about life, so long as you feel life. Thinking might only get you in trouble—like wondering why, if Benjamin as an 8-year-old has a 70-year-old face on an 8-year-old body, he actually shrinks to the size of a toddler while in his senior years. Mortality is too abstract a concept to worry about when there’s a visual-effects team to wrangle.

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THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
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nBrad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton
nRated PG-13

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