Like Forrest Gump Butt Better (Mostly)
It’s not surprising that the critics love The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The vast majority of critics are writers, part-time writers, failed writers, or wannabe writers. And Ben Button is a shameless glorification of the act of writing, a sort of a parable about the power of storytelling. At their heart, stories are a tradition of contrived bullshit that we spew to make ourselves feel better. The strength of Button is that it lays its most obvious contrivances (a man who lives his life backwards, love at first sight, etc.) on the table from the start, so that the focus becomes not the bullshit itself, but what it is about said bullshit that makes it so universally compelling, and why it is that we can know it’s bullshit and still be compelled by it.
Button begins roughly in the present, like its closest analog, Forrest Gump, with Cate Blanchett’s character on her deathbed prompting her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read her/us the story of Benjamin Button from his diary as her final wish. The action that occurs in the present is actually my biggest caveat in recommending this movie, but I’ll get to that later.
We begin with Benjamin Button’s birth, which occois unda unusual coicumstances (I’m not really qualified to judge the accuracy of Pitt’s New Orleans accent, but I thought it necessary to give you a taste) on the last day of the first great war. His mother dies in childbirth and his father (the always enjoyable Jason Flemyng), terrified by the freaky old-man baby, abandons him on the doorstep of an old folks home in New Orleans, leaving the baby to be raised by the house’s black caretaker, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). From there the story plays out, as I said, much like Forrest Gump, as a series of connected, chronological vignettes about Button’s journey through life and time. What makes Button better than Forrest Gump is that it’s not just about a lovable simpleton bumbling his way through American nostalgia like a cinematic “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” There’s American history in Button too, but the focus is (alert: big words and pretentious-sounding language ahead) the paradox between everything in life being temporary and the feeling of infiniteness at each isolated moment.
That was a mouthful, but point is, the structure works. And it works because it’s clear that the vignettes’ ultimate goal is a lot bigger than the usual aw-shucks-isn’t-that-cute cheap heartwarm that you normally get with movies made like this. The brilliance of Button is taking tropes like “two ships passing in the night” and not just using them for a cheap feel good (though you certainly do get a cheap feel good), but to illustrate why they make us feel good. The contrivances of the story have a point, and that point is to explain the contrivances of story. Lived forward, life seems and possibly is temporary and completely arbitrary. But in looking at it backwards, retelling it as a story, it becomes such that it only could’ve happened in just this way. Those isolated, arbitrary moments suddenly become meaningful and permanent, necessary to making us what we are. Write it down and it lasts forever. Is it corny? Yes, it’s plenty corny. But corny is basically something that’s easy, unoriginal, and ingratiating. And there are still some universal truths hiding just behind what makes some things easy and ingratiating. To its credit, Ben Button actually attempts to explain them.
But wait, I said something about caveats, didn’t I? Ahh yes, those. I don’t consider this too much of a spoiler because it really has nothing to do with the plot of the movie (and therein lies the problem), but the “present” in which the story takes place is just before Hurricane Katrina. That they took a classic about the timelessness of storytelling and made it a period piece about a catastrophic event with no insight into the event is beyond idiotic. From the beginning as Blanchett lays on her hospital bed, the nurses murmur about a hurricane coming. The entire movie you sit there going, “Oh God, don’tletitbeKatrinadon’tletitbeKatrinadon’tletitbeKatrina…” and sure enough, it’s f-cking Katrina. Does the film have anything to say about Katrina? Does Katrina fit in with the rest of the theme? No. It’s window-dressing, it’s cheap name dropping and it’s sleazy. And since I doubt F. Scott Fitzgerald had Katrina in mind when he wrote the 1921 short story upon which the movie is based, the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of screenwriter Eric Roth, who oh would you look at that, also wrote Forrest Gump (I didn’t know that until just now, I promise).
The other problem with the present action is Cate Blanchett hamming it up as an old lady. Look, Cate, we know you’re not really a dying old lady, but we’ll go with it because it’s part of the story. You don’t have wheeze and huff and cough to keep reminding us that you’re old and dying – we get it. All the extra stuff really says is “Look at me, I’m acting!”, and it’s kind of distracting, not to mention annoying. Either have her tone it down or hire an actual old lady. But as much as the unfortunate setting and the overacting made me want to throw my shoes at the screen, they weren’t enough to ruin an otherwise great movie.