Curiouser and Curiouser

January 25, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – I saw it Saturday night, and the thing I found most curious was the passivity of the hero.

In case you hadn’t heard, the film is about a man who is born old and wizened and ages in reverse. As the years pass, his body grows ever more youthful, while his mind grows older in the usual way.

The film contains three stories:
  1. A love story – Benjamin and Daisy. Fated to become lovers, and when they finally get together, they know that their love is doomed. Daisy will grow older while Benjamin physically becomes a child.

  2. US History 101. The film paints Benjamin’s life, and Daisy’s, against the broader canvas of historical events – from Armistice Day to Hurricane Katrina – with some notable omissions, like the Depression.

  3. Mother-daughter. Daisy, dying in a New Orleans hospital in the present, has her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her. The Button story is told in these flashbacks. The mother satisfies her nostalgia, but the daughter is angry. “This is how you let me know who my father really was?” Or words to that effect. It was the only real dramatic conflict in the movie.
Through it all, Benjamin is strangely passive, especially for an American hero. Most leading men in US films don’t express much emotion, except anger. But they are usually men of action. (The trailers that preceded Button were full of guys chasing, shooting, fighting, blowing things up. Even the young women in the chick-flick trailer (Bride Wars) were slugging it out.) American protagonists take steps, tackle problems, compete, outwit outfight, etc. Benjamin, however, drifts along on the waves of history. He winds up in a naval battle, but as the bullets fly, we see him mostly lying on the floor of the tugboat while the boat ultimately destroys the German submarine.

He is passive with women as well, including the love of his life Daisy. He does go to Paris in pursuit of her, but when he finds that she has a boyfriend there, he’s very willing to take no for an answer and goes back to New Orleans. Years later, Daisy shows up and asks him to sleep with her. Here we finally see Benjamin as an active young man, riding a motorcycle, piloting a sailboat, making love. But these years, the late 1950s and the 60s, fly by in a nearly wordless montage that takes up only a few minutes in a film that lasts well over two and a half hours.

In the rest of the movie, Benjamin moves through life with a homey fatalism.
Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
No surprise that the screenwriter is the guy who wrote Forrest Gump. What is surprising – no, curious – is that these protagonists who passively observe life rather than trying to change it are the center of highly regarded American films – films that get nominated of Golden Globes and Oscars.

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