February issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 11 years ago

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems as if it was designed with the awards season in mind. It has the epic length of most Oscar winners and perennial nominees in director David Fincher and lead actress Cate Blanchett. Most importantly, its eponymous protagonist suffers from a life-affirming disability, á la Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump — in this case Brad Pitt, aging backwards from senility to puerility. Yet for all its technical wizardry — or perhaps because of it — Benjamin Button is strangely mechanical and empty.

Essentially a love story, Pitt, born as an 80-year-old, falls in love with the much younger Blanchett and pursues her relentlessly as she ages and loses her beauty, while he becomes a dashing young man. Very loosely adapted from a minor F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, the film manages to lose the whimsy and fantasy of the source material. Where Fitzgerald would have played the eventual coupling of the two leads for laughs, Fincher tries to sell the idea of a teenage Pitt and septuagenarian Blanchett coming together as a comment on the human condition. While the heavy piano sensitively playing in the background suggests something oh-so-profound, we are never given any clue as to what the deeper meaning of this union may be.

Benjamin Button hints at but eventually shies away from tackling important themes. Brad Pitt, abandoned by his family because of his condition, is adopted by a black woman in the segregated South. Instead of tackling this racial taboo, the film studiously ignores it. Similarly, Blanchett narrates the story of her affair with Pitt to her daughter as Hurricane Katrina approaches, but that calamity is treated as an unimportant background. These fleeting mentions are reminiscent of Forrest Gump, where the title character is a witness to some of the greatest events of the 20th century, which are treated as mere sideshows. The similarities are so striking that one could have accused the screenwriter Eric Roth of plagiarising Forrest Gump had he not written that too.

This is not to say that Benjamin Button is without merit. The final heart-tugging hour almost redeems the two hours that preceded it. Fincher’s visual mastery is on full display and the CGI (computer-generated imagery) effects that facilitate Pitt’s time warp are stunningly realistic. But no amount of special effects trickery can hide the void at the heart of the film. Although widely considered one of the favourites to win Best Film at the Oscars, winning any awards would eclipse Benjamin Button’s plot for trickery.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.