Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
Among the nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In a field of films that have made very little at the box office, Button’s $100 million gross makes it one of the more watched movies in the Oscar race.
The premise of the film is based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. A child born the same day World War I ends enters the world with the features and infirmities of an elderly man. Instead of growing older, as he ages he appears younger and younger. He is abandoned by his father and raised by an African-American woman who finds him on her doorstep. During his life he lives a great series of adventures, coming across a number of fascinating people. All along he truly loves only one woman, Daisy, whom he knows from his childhood in New Orleans.
On a visual level, the movie does well. The adaptations in Brad Pitt’s size and facial features as he grows up (and young) are great moments for film technology. There are several good performances, including Benjamin’s mother (played by Taraji Henson) and Jared Harris as Captain Mike. Cate Blanchett does her typically fine job as the central love interest, Daisy Fuller.
Yet for all the decent supporting roles, the title character proves to be a dud. This fact surprised me both because of the interesting premise and Brad Pitt, who I consider an overall good actor. Yet Benjamin Button is, quite frankly, one of the most boring, emotionless, bland characters to appear in an Oscar-nominated film. First, he speaks very little apart from his voice-overs. Now, modest use of language is not bad acting, per se. Yet to be interesting and sympathetic, a character must communicate to others in the film as well as to the audience in a convincingly human manner.
Button never does this. His facial expressions consist of little more than vapid stares only occasionally modified. As others live their lives, he seems strangely aloof, as though he is an impartial by-stander with no discernable role in the drama of life. Such a role is a hard sell when the person acting in such a manner is the one character both driving the story and binding it together. However, this, too, could prove less than fatal if by some method Button could tell us what he is thinking and feeling. Maybe that was the goal of the voice-overs where Button makes comments on the people and events around him. Yet his voice-overs feel like they were stolen from a collection of Hallmark cards. They leave us with no real insight into his thoughts or emotions.
The themes of the film are similarly mixed. The strongest presentation of faith comes in the form of Brad Pitt’s adopted mother. Though the film takes some gentle jabs at the tent revivals she is fond of frequenting, Button’s mother comes across as one of the most genuinely good human beings in the entire film. Her specifically Christian faith is implied as a large reason for her virtue.
Yet the movie presents several problems for the Christian viewer. The central moral theme of the movie is something like “Live your life to the fullest,” a sort of Carpe Diem with a Forrest Gump twist. Yet the basis for living life to the fullest comes down to little more than doing what makes you happy.
Button himself acts as a constant facilitator for others’ realization of happy lives. Yet that realization is almost always defined by the standards (sometimes the whims) of those with whom Button comes in contact. For example: His utter lack of personality for some reason becomes insanely attractive to a married woman. They begin an affair, one entirely initiated by her and agreed to by Button with his typically minimal use of facial muscle or vocal chords. Here Button seems to make no moral distinctions regarding adultery or casual sex but seems to feel that if said actions make her happy, then it is alright.
The lack of transcendent moral clarity leaves the viewer less warm-hearted than empty. So many Biblical themes could have surfaced in this film: redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, bearing one another’s burdens to name a few. Instead, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shows that the best concepts and the best technology are not enough to make an Oscar-worthy film.
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