“Written by Eric Roth, writer of Forrest Gump, the thing read as though a studio executive had come to Roth with the conceit – a man ages backwards – and the assignment to turn that conceit into Forrest Gump 2. Mission sort of accomplished. Consider:
- a southern boy born into a body afflicted with a crippling ailment. Forrest Gump is unable to walk without the use of leg braces. Benjamin Button is born arthritic and dying of old age.
- both boys gain the ability to walk properly through seemingly miraculous circumstances.
- both boys fall in love at a young age with the girl who will be their Fermina Daza, loves lifelong and unrequited until one brief moment in young adulthood when the timing is just right. Their paths, of course, again diverge soon after, only to reconnect years later in a situation involving a child.
- both boys are raised by a parent or parental figures who repeat a single piece of sage wisdom that the boy himself grows up to impart. In Forrest Gump, Forrest’s mother teaches him that “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Benjamin Button, in an unsubtle attempt at creating another catchphrase, has both Queenie and Tizzy, Benjamin’s step-parents, tell him that “You never know what’s comin’ for you.” Both Forrest and Benjamin go on to repeat this motto to others in their lives.
- both boys grow into dim bulbs of men, “pure of heart” but emotionally naive and so sympathetically vulnerable to the cruelties of the world.
- both become enlisted in the military, and enter the service of an eccentric commanding officer known primarily by his title and first name. Lieutenant Dan, Captain Mike.
- both serve alongside ostensibly eccentric fellow officers, introduced by way of a scene that was itself, in Forrest Gump, a takeoff on the original, unironic, scene in Apocalypse Now.
For instance, Forrest Gump is a bit more proactive than Benjamin Button, who passively moves through life without making an active decision until near the end, when he consciously does one of the most despicable things a man can do. He abandons his family. The film, of course, intends for us to continue feeling empathy for Benjamin beyond that point, and so has one of the characters wounded by Benjamin’s decision tell him he was right to do what he did, but his decision never feels right, morally or narratively. The script needs (or, rather, wants) this thing to happen, and so it happens, despite its complete incongruity with what we know of Benjamin up to that point.
One would think the near total passivity of the title character would have been a flaw evident at the screenplay stage (for the record, it was) but rarely have script problems slowed the production of a film once an A-list director has his momentum behind it, pushing it inevitably toward the screen whether ready or not.
And while not the worst film I’ve seen, it remains so thoroughly mediocre, so poorly written and so poorly made, that its arrogance only leaves that much more bitter a taste in my mouth. As a rule, one hopes to judge a film on its merits alone, and not by any hype – any buzz – that might surround it. But the buzz about “the best screenplay I’ve ever read,” the hype and reviews that use words like “epic” and “masterpiece” compel me to take the thing down a notch. It is not a masterpiece. There are, in fact, few films in recent memory that I have detested more.”