Written by Mike Barry Monday, 05 January 2009 12:54Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was said to have had the world at his feet when he was 25-and at his throat by the time he turned 40-so it is only fitting that Fitzgerald would write about a man who ages backwards.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a Fitzgerald (1896-1940) short story that the one-time Great Neck resident had published in a 1922 edition of Collier's magazine, is in the news because a major motion picture based on the tale was released on Christmas Day.
Button's premise is an interesting one: what would life be like if you aged backwards? The problem is that Benjamin Button's journey is too ambitious to capture on film, an obstacle the filmmakers assert they've overcome. Also, the short story and movie have little to do with one another except for the concept and the name of the main character.
But let's talk about the film because you've only got so many heart beats left, a theme which is relentlessly hammered into the audience's head. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) comes into the world in 1918 and looks like he's 80. His mother dies during childbirth and his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) leaves the baby Benjamin on the doorstep of an old-age home in New Orleans that is run by Queenie (Taraji Henson), who raises Benjamin as though he were her own child.
Life is pretty good for Benjamin because, on the outside, it appears as though he can socialize with his contemporaries. Things are not as they seem, of course, and physical signs appear showing that Benjamin is getting younger, not older. Daisy (Cate Blanchett) crosses paths with Benjamin when she is 12 and they spend the rest of the film finding one another at different life stages until they 'meet in the middle,' in their early 40s. Now, would you believe it takes almost 90 minutes for them to get together? And that turns out to be the movie's midway point.
Look, Button is filled with scenes of death and dashed dreams and I'm inclined as an Irish-American Catholic and Fitzgerald fan to absorb calmly depictions of both. Still, I don't believe you should leave a theatre feeling as though you are three hours closer to death. Benjamin really isn't up to much besides chasing Daisy. Moreover, can you get a lazier narrative device than having two (!) leading characters find out the identity of one of their parents as part of a deathbed confession? The film should win awards for make-up and technological wizardry but not much else.
By the way, Fitzgerald, while associated with Long Island because of The Great Gatsby, grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. While attending the Republican National Convention there last September, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of structures carrying his name. I passed a Fitzgerald statue in downtown St. Paul's Rice Park, for instance, and walked by Minnesota Public Radio's Fitzgerald Theatre.
Like the characters in many of his works, Fitzgerald's life didn't have a happy ending. He died at the age of 44 in Hollywood, California while struggling to earn a living as a screenwriter.