The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a beguiling fantasy. Like "Synecdoche, New York," this is a film that closely observes life and aging in a fascinatingly original way. Very loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s short story of the same name about a man who ages backwards, director David Fincher ("Zodiac," "Fight Club") and screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") have taken such a simple premise and transformed it into something marvelously cultivated and involving that works like a blossoming flower that progressively grows more beautiful. Through classical, straightforward storytelling, we're given a sweeping tale of a life lived in reverse. I have a feeling the Academy will eat this up. Not without good reason, though. It's a visionary piece of art, a technical wonder, and a timeless masterpiece.
Amazing digital special effects have been employed here to tell the most old-fashioned of stories. Benjamin is, for the most part, played by Brad Pitt. In his early years, which leave him looking like an old man in his 70s, Brad Pitt's features are superimposed onto aged, withered faces. From there, we're gradually revealed the strapping actor we're familiar with. Touches of makeup take care of Pitt through those middle years until one point we're introduced to him looking the way we haven't seen him look since his days of "Thelma and Louise." It's a grand visual accomplishment, and watching the transformation of Brad Pitt is in itself captivating. And the progression of those around Benjamin aging normally is equally well done.
The movie is a framed story and actually begins in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina is just about to hit a New Orleans hospital. It's here where an elder woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her deathbed, and her daughter (Julia Ormond) begins reading her the diary of a man named Benjamin, and it opens with this: "My name is Benjamin Button, and I was born under unusual circumstances." Born at the end of World War I in 1918, Benjamin Button's mother dies giving birth to him, and he is abandoned by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng). Oddly enough, the man eventually feels guilty and finds his way back into Benjamin's life, astonished at what his own son becomes. Benjamin is raised in an old folks' home by a generous black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who claims him as her own. Benjamin first meets his lifelong love, Daisy, when they're both chronologically 7-years-old, but only Daisy physically appears so. She is fascinated by Benjamin and understands he's most certainly not an old man.
Soon enough, Benjamin journeys off on his own looking like a man in his 50s as he takes a job working on a tugboat. He meets his captain (Jared Harris) who longed to be an artist so covered himself in tattoos. Benjamin gets a break from the sea in Russia where he meets an older woman, Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), who dreams of being the first woman to swim the English Channel. They spend many nights together in a hotel lobby, and it's the first time Benjamin is introduced to sex and love. And then, like a dream, she's gone. World War II then sneaks up on Benjamin, and he's back out to sea and then finally returns home again. These picturesque moments contain meticulous attention to detail and work like miniature episodic period pieces. Each era is given its own unique color palette and mood, which gives the film a very classy and old school style and look.
Daisy becomes a dancer in New York and starts traveling the world. The sad part about Benjamin and Daisy's romantic situation is that they're never allowed to grow old together. There are many gaps in their time together, and they don't officially hook up until the early 1960s back at the old folks' home. This time together is utterly magical, and as Daisy says, they meet in the middle. Their bodies finally correspond, and you can imagine the raw joy that brings. And then their ages continue going their separate ways, touching only for a brief moment in time. It's here where the film addresses its most delicate questions. What really lasts forever, and is anything ever really eternal? Does the poignancy of love lie within its impossibility?
As Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt gives the performance of his career. To go along with his physical transformation, he delivers something equally emotional and moving. It's a deeply thoughtful and subtle performance even behind all the makeup and CGI. There's a calmness to his performance, which rightfully inhabits this rare character we're watching. He understands his strange situation and acknowledges his fate, accepting the fact that a life is a life no matter which way you live it. Alongside Pitt is the always magnificent Cate Blanchett who truly is the soul of this movie. Her character may very well hold the biggest struggle of all, and Blanchett embodies it. Others, such as Tilda Swinton and Taraji P. Henson, are also excellent.
Yes, the movie is very long at nearly 3 hours, but a life this fascinating needs such an epic scope. And not once does this movie stop enchanting or intriguing. There's a good amount of sentiment, but it's never overbearing thanks to the direction of Fincher. Rather than dropping to pure sentimental goo, the movie turns to the more lyrical and poetic. It draws you in completely. And don't you just love those movies that speak a world of rich, resonant meaning to you? The ones that sneak up on you like that? Those movies that hold wonderful truths and, in the end, require the wipe from the back of your hand just beneath each eye? "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is one of those movies.