Roth masters art of telling lifelong tale in 'Button'

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2009

It is ironic that one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's least known short stories has been turned into a 167-minute, super popular major motion picture. Then again, the discrepancy was probably to be expected once screenwriter Eric Roth got the adaptation duties. "The Good Shepherd," "Munich," "Ali" and "The Insider" all run more than 140 minutes. "The Postman" runs 177 minutes but feels at least twice that long. Yet it is not any of these films that shares similarities with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Merrick Morton / The Associated Press
Merrick Morton / The Associated Press

Roth also wrote "Forrest Gump." Now, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is not mentally challenged like Tom Hanks' Gump was. That detail aside, Button does share much in common with Gump. No, he is not slow mentally. He is, however, an outsider from the start of his life through no fault of his own. Being born with the wrinkles, arthritis, and cataracts of an 80-year-old man - but physically resembling an infant - will have that effect on you.

There is no secret about the plot of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The premise (man is born old and then ages backwards) sets the stage for infinite possibilities. Obviously, Benjamin's condition has all kinds of ripple effects both on his own life as well as the lives of the people he meets. Frankly, 600 words are nowhere near enough to delve into the life of Benjamin Button.

One hundred and sixty-seven minutes, on the other hand, provides ample time for director David Fincher to tell the story Roth has written. Quite honestly, it says something about both men's work that they were able to not only cover Benjamin's entire existence, but also make a 167-minute film interesting from open to close.

Because I was enthralled with Benjamin's life, I did not initially realize how strikingly similar Roth's structure was in "Forrest Gump." In Button he ties the film together by having Benjamin's true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), old and dying, listen to her daughter (Julia Ormond) read aloud from the late Benjamin's journal. Forrest Gump, of course, told his tale to folks waiting at the bus stop with him. Benjamin's mother likes to tell him, "You never know what's comin' for ya." I'm sure I don't need to remind you what Forrest's mother liked to tell him. Even the love stories are practically twins, as our heroes have true love but for numerous reasons there is never smooth sailing for very long.

I suppose one could accuse Roth of stealing ideas from himself. But at least he picked "Forrest Gump" to steal from and not "The Postman."

It is also helpful that "Button," like "Gump," gets superb performances from its cast. Pitt is thoughtful and soft spoken throughout, letting his facial expressions convey his thoughts and emotions. He's also so ridiculously pretty that I found myself agreeing with the teenage girl next to me when she would gasp in disbelief every time Fincher gave us a close up of the younger Button. Blanchett is fantastic and, to my eye, a beautiful dancer. They are the stars, but the rest of the enormous cast is quite good, too. My favorite was Benjamin's adopted mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson); Henson lights up the screen every second she is on it.

Perhaps what makes "Button" so successful is that Roth has mastered the art of telling a lifelong tale. Life, death, love, loss, happiness, sorrow, loneliness, youth, old age - somehow he is able to weave it all together into something truly captivating and beautiful.

We can just pretend "The Postman" never even happened.

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