Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Once you know the central conceit of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”- Benjamin (Brad Pitt) ages in reverse - you have a pretty good handle on everything that happens in the film. Benjamin is born as a normal-sized baby (a detail I had wondered about), but he is horribly aged and monstrous. He develops into a crippled little boy with the face of an elderly man. As the years pass, however, rather than dying as his family expects, he slowly gets healthier and younger-looking. His life is by definition rather lonely, but he has a good heart that wins him a few friends despite his bizarre appearance as an aged child. One of them is Daisy (Cate Blanchett), a girl of roughly his age. Over the years their lives separate and re-connect repeatedly. They are clearly each others’ great love, but the reality of Benjamin’s reverse aging, as well as all the more ordinary things like pride and youthful folly, keep cropping up to separate them.

There’s an oft-repeated saying that “Youth is wasted on the young,” meaning that by the time we have enough experience and wisdom to appreciate all that life has to offer, our bodies won’t let us do it. In light of that, you might think that Benjamin’s reverse aging is actually a gift. The film does an excellent job showing that this “gift” tends to separate Benjamin acutely from those he loves or could love. On the other hand, the film suggests that whether we get older or younger over the years is not really the point. As Daisy says, “We all wind up in diapers eventually.” Benjamin’s uniqueness makes him a lonely soul, but he experiences all the usual things like love and loss. The one thing about his progressive youthfulness is that it puts him in a good position to understand the central theme of the film, which is that it is never too late to live your life or to change it.

“Benjamin Button” is inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which can currently be read online at The film was written by Eric Roth (“Forest Gump”, “Munich”) and directed by David Fincher (“Fight Club”). I would describe this as a gentle movie. There are no great shocks to the system, and it might be difficult to mark the dramatic climax. It’s as if the storytellers set up the initial condition of Benjamin’s reverse aging, then just allowed his life to play itself out on screen, with no contrived plot twists or major revelations. (Deistic filmmaking.) Folks expecting an explanation for Benjamin’s condition, or a science-fictionesque exploration of the process will be disappointed. It’s really a nicely paced movie, beautifully filmed in New Orleans. The story is told through the device of an elderly Daisy having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary to her. This shop-worn device feels a bit “Titanic,” but it doesn’t go over too badly. The film’s only weakness may be that it is so gently paced that you may start to wonder if anything Big is going to happen. Hopefully by the end you realize that the biggest thing of all has happened: a life has been lived. Benjamin may age in an unconventional manner, but when all is said and done he gets the same thing that we all get, a lifetime.

4 stars