Curious, indeed. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which was a response to an offhand remark of Mark Twain’s that life would be better if old age came before youth, this is an elaborate, technically astounding fantasy with a genuine epic sweep and all manner of amazing sequences, performances, moments and notions – but its ultimate purpose seems maddeningly vague. Surely, all this doesn’t just boil down to a few platitudes about living life to the full and knowing when to let go? Director David Fincher, who draws CGI-augmented tour de force performances from Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the lovers who criss-cross their May-December romance, tends to invest his films with layers of meaning which take a few viewings to tease out, but the Eric Roth screenplay seems to be as pat, flat and disingenuous as his work on the roughly comparable Forrest Gump – though that at least had a (fairly patronising and conservative) political agenda in its address to counterculture history. This spans the 20th Century, from World War I to Hurricane Katrina, but its remarkable hero is so caught up in his singular circumstances that – though he’s on a tug that sinks a Nazi sub in WWII and pops in on the original Broadway production of Carousel – he almost never engages with his times.
The fantasy premise is seemingly triggered by a grieving clockmaker (Elias Koteas) who constructs in 1918 a timepiece which runs backwards in the hope of reviving the boys lost in the war (Fincher delivers a jaw-dropping take of battlefield carnage running backward); Benjamin (Pitt) is born a shrivelled baby-sized old man to the wealthy New Orleans button family when the clock starts and later expires as a newborn when it stops, as if the film were also inspired by that song about the grandfather clock. In a scene reminiscent of the birth of the Penguin in Batman Returns, Button Senior (Jason Flemyng), who owns a button factory, is so shocked by the mutant and grief-stricken by his wife’s death in labour, that he dumps Benjamin on the steps not of an orphanage but an old people’s home, where he is taken in by Queenie (Tarajo P. Henson), a black woman who cares for the apparently doomed baby. Benjamin becomes a midget-sized, stooped old man-child, but his infirmities gradually recede and he straightens up into late middle-age, then heads towards a vigorous prime of life and eventually youth – he learns of his origins from his contrite father, experiences life at sea under a Popeye-like tugboat captain (Jared Harris), has an affair in Murmansk with an English woman (Tilda Swinton) and returns to America after the war to pursue Daisy (Blanchett), whom he first met when she was a dance-struck child but who is clearly his soul-mate, even if they need to wait til he’s young enough and she’s old enough to enjoy suburban bliss and the Twist. Daisy, stuck with that Fitzgeraldian name, also needs to have and lose a career as a dancer (besides deageing Blanchett, CGI enables her to be as limber as Moira Shearer in her prime) – and lives on to become ancient herself, lying on her death bed as Katrina nears, encouraging her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read Benjamin’s diary/autobiography to understand her own origins.
The premise is just accepted (though Benjamin does worry his daughter might inherit his condition, which she doesn’t) – and it’s not the only fantastic element in a picture which airbrushes America the way it digitally removes wrinkles from its stars when they have to seem unnaturally young. This presents a New Orleans without racial prejudice, with mixed-race old peoples’ homes in the 1920s and a 1950s where no one tracks down a mutant who spent hard-to-explain time in Russia as a possible commie threat. Aside from a couple of wars, some clothes and music styles (Pitt wears the Wild One biker look a lot better than Shia LeBoeuf), this doesn’t even make much of the passing years – though he looks like a golden youth in the 1960s, when that would have made him a hippie idol, Benjamin neither embraces the counterculture nor clings to the grouchy old attitudes of someone his actual age. Indeed, Benjamin only has to deal with physical and emotional problems, since unaccountably official or medical bodies take no interest in his case, and the convenience of inheriting a button factory means he doesn’t have to worry about earning a living most of the time, or account for his unique circumstances to any government. Benjamin is naturally apart from other folk, maintaining a distance even from his soul mate, but the film presents him at several removes – via narration, diary, imagination and even postcards – and one aspect of Twain’s original musing, that it would be useful to have mature wisdom at the height of one’s physical powers, goes unexplored.
The look of the film is highly stylised, partly because the necessary CGI isn’t yet photo-realistic – the youthed-up Blanchett looks ever so slightly like a computer game character – enough to pass by unnoticed, It’s a long haul, but it doesn’t drag – though I’m still not sure what the point of it all is, or whether the core relationships would be all that much different if Benjamin aged the way everyone else does.