The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and David Fincher, 2008
#29, 2008 Skandies; Oscar nominee

Plot summary: Benjamin Button is born in New Orleans in 1918 and, early in his life, bonds with a girl named Daisy. The 1930s roll around and Benjamin hops a tugboat to go see the world, winding up in Murmansk, where he has an affair with the wife of a British spy. World War II breaks out and Benjamin is one of the few on his vessel to survive its first battle. Meanwhile, Daisy has moved to New York to join a ballet company, and when Benjamin comes to visit, she is wrapped up in her new life and they don't click; later, when he visits her in Paris after she is hit by a car, she is too upset to deal with him and sends him away. But eventually they both wind up back in New Orleans, and this time they become a couple, move in together, and have a child. Benjamin is afraid he can't be a good father, and leaves the country for a while. When he returns, Daisy has married someone else, but they have a last fling anyway; then a few more years pass and Daisy cares for the senile Benjamin until the end of his life in 2003 before succumbing to old age herself in 2005.

Oh, also Benjamin ages backwards, but this is incidental.

I once complained that everyone who tries to adapt Freaky Friday for the screen throws out the entirety of that funny, wonderful story and simply slaps the title on an unrelated script about a mother-daughter body switch. The Fitzgerald story whose title this movie borrows is not in Freaky Friday's league, but at least it actually makes use of its central gimmick. Yes, it's a broad comedy in which Benjamin tries to matriculate at Yale as a gray-haired patriarch and later tries to sign up for WWI as a prepubescent boy, and yes, it's easy to see why the filmmakers weren't interested in making a movie full of these sorts of dumb gags. It's also easy to see why they departed from the short story in their handling of the reverse aging process. See, Fitzgerald has Benjamin's mind operate in reverse as well as his body: a few days after his birth Benjamin is smoking cigars and reading the Britannica, whereas by the time he's a grandfather he's playing with toy soldiers and construction paper. But to me, what captures the imagination about reverse aging is the way it plays with the notion that youth is wasted on the young — the all too common lament that our best years are behind us by the time we've got a fix on what we'd like to do with them. Life is a quick ascent to a peak of vitality and then a long decline. Now imagine flipping that graph around. Say that, like Benjamin Button, you live for eighty-five years... and you're stronger, and sharper, and more energetic than the day before for sixty-five of those years rather than just the first twenty. You could tell one hell of an "if I knew then what I know now" story. But it wouldn't be this one.

In this movie, Benjamin's mind ages normally even as his body operates in reverse. So it's easy to see why he falls in love with Daisy: since he lives in a nursing home and doesn't go to school, he never gets to interact with any other children except Daisy. What's impossible to understand is why she falls in love with him. Yes, she (like pretty much everyone else in the story) picks up on the fact that there's a child's mind in that withered, geriatric body. So? She knows lots of kids! Why is she going to be drawn to the freakish man-child? In the story, Benjamin doesn't meet the future mother of his children for another couple of decades, enough to make it a fairly standard May-December romance at first; the movie version is more like March-February.

And not only is it unbelievable, but it also short-circuts all the potential drama! Where is the conflict, where are the obstacles? Take the New York sequence. Yes, it's about Benjamin not yet getting the girl... but it plays exactly the same way it would if he were a hometown friend who looked his proper age! Daisy doesn't treat him like he's in his late 50s, just as she never treated him like a septuagenarian as a child, and so the age difference doesn't register as the main problem — it's simply the fact that she's a showbiz gal now, and he's still kind of a rube. I suppose one might argue that Benjamin's inability to be a father to his daughter is a source of drama, but that part doesn't make really make sense. During his daughter's childhood, Benjamin would seem to go through his 30s — in reverse, yes, but it wouldn't really make a huge difference. By that point he and Daisy should be able to explain the situation to the kid. Benjamin would then seem to go through his 20s as his daughter went through her teens, and yes, that would be weird, but not so weird as to make abandoning her a better alternative. Benjamin says that he doesn't want Daisy to have to take care of both their daughter and himself, but by the time Benjamin needed care — which Daisy ends up providing anyway — their daughter would have long since gone off to college and out on her own. Did he not do the math?

When this movie was in theaters I heard lots of people complain that it was boring. I would contend that this is not because of the pace, or the 2:45 running time, but because Benjamin's life is simply too good. What challenges does he have to overcome? He's accepted by everyone around him, which is rare enough among those of us who age in the traditional fashion. Think about how his life realistically ought to unfold! In his early years, he can't go to school or associate with other children, and spends his formative years in the stultifying confines of a nursing home. Eventually there comes a day when he's vigorous enough to leave, but not only does he lack the life experience to be able to hold a conversation with those his apparent age, he doesn't even have the life experience of a normal teenager. I would expect that by the time his real and apparent ages meet up, he's isolated, embittered, and likely to be just as unprepared to take advantage of the prime of his life as those of us who enter it from the other direction. So if you want a slightly more uplifting story, let's say that Daisy is in fact a very warm, loving person, and on her visits to the nursing home is extremely kind to all the residents, including Benjamin. I still wouldn't have her become his special friend, partly because I don't believe it and partly because it's frickin' creepy. Then, sure, go ahead and throw in a bittersweet moment when Benjamin goes to see her show in New York, and starts to introduce himself backstage, and she seems like she feels like she kinda sorta recognizes him, but he realizes the impossibility that anything good will come of this and backs out. Finally, make the car accident serious enough that Daisy is in a really bad place in her life — maybe she gradually loses all her friends from the world of dance simply though lack of contact, or maybe she's even paralyzed or something — so that when this handsome stranger her own age shows up who couldn't care less about her injuries or disfigurement or whatever, their romance is redemptive for both of them. Unfortunately, she'll still probably have to send him away or die or something so we can get to the payoff: the wise-beyond-his-years, if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now young man, the teenage prodigy, the old-soul-in-a-child's-body religious figure. I dunno. It's still probably not a great movie, but at least it's actually about its premise!

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