[The following contains minor spoilers for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.]
The premise of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button holds a great deal of promise: If you were forced to live life backwards, starting with old age and ending with infancy, how would you do it differently? If you experienced the tragic death of those around you at the outset of life, how would that change the way you valued future relationships? If you could re-live your young adult days with the accumulated knowledge of 60 years of experience, how enthusiastically would you take on the world? After reading about the film and watching director David Fincher’s interview with Charlie Rose, it’s clear to me that Fincher set out primarily to make a movie that answers these questions. While I don’t think he succeeds to any meaningful degree, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nonetheless a beautiful, moving film, and one that ultimately and profoundly confronts notions of fate and chance.
Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in New Orleans, Louisiana on November 11, 1918, on the day that World War I ends. His mother dies during childbirth and his father (Jason Flemyng), disgusted by Benjamin’s grotesque appearance and gutted by the tragedy of his wife’s death, leaves him on the doorstep of a nursing home. Queenie (played wonderfully by Taraji P. Henson, in what will surely be one of the most underrated performances of the year), a religious staff worker who believes herself to be barren, considers Benjamin to be a miracle and takes him as her child. As Benjamin gets older, he ages backwards, turning from a decrepit man with a sharp and curious mind into a babbling toddler. Along the way, he falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the granddaughter of one of the nursing home’s tenants, and the two must deal with the complications of aging in reverse directions.
The screenplay for Button was written by Eric Roth and shares many similarities with that of Forrest Gump, which Roth also wrote. Both films depict the course of one person’s life through a series of vignettes, set against a backdrop of significant events in American history (while this was appropriate for Gump, it occasionally feels a little too cute for this film). Both films are bookended by a character retelling the main narrative of the film, and in both films, the significance of this retelling is initially unclear. Both films repeatedly return to a single, central love story.
But although Button also shares a keen sense of humor with Gump, it’s a much more somber affair and tries to say something much more profound about life. About a third of the way through the film, Benjamin is walking through the streets of Russia with love interest Elisabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) when the middle-aged Abbott gives the well-worn speech about how she wish she could start over and live her youthful days again, but carrying the knowledge that she has built up over time. This seems to be the thesis of the entire movie and throughout the film’s 2 hour and 48 minute runtime, we feel a build-up to the end of Benjamin’s life, when he will apply the lessons he’s learned through his vast array of life experiences. In this regard, the movie simply doesn’t deliver. Benjamin is just as aimless at the end of his life in his 20-year old body as he was in his 80-year old body at the beginning, and it leaves us wondering: What was the whole point of living your life backwards in the first place?
While the film fails at its explicit purpose, it succeeds in many other ways. The reverse aging plot device becomes less a way of channeling experiences, but rather a life obstacle like any other that Benjamin must deal with. How can you fall in love with someone who’s getting older as you are getting younger? What can your life be like with that person? How can you be a father when you’ll eventually look younger than your child? These are the issues that the movie becomes primarily concerned with towards its final act, and there is a deep satisfaction that comes from watching how the characters resolve these issues.
In this sense, Button is a meditation on the vagaries of life circumstances and the immutability of chance and luck. In our lives, we interact regularly with our social network of friends, while everyday we pass by countless others on the street, in our classrooms, or in our offices that we’ll never ever talk with. Under different circumstances, these random strangers could be friends, acquaintances, confidantes, even lovers, but because of the cards that life has dealt us, they are not. In Benjamin’s case, life has dealt him a reverse aging condition that takes him on a path opposite to that of everyone he loves. He’s forced to say goodbye to people when he should be joining them and commiserating with them under shared circumstances. There is a profound sadness to this fate, and for me, this is what Button ended up being: A well-told story of a life that is subject to the whims of destiny, filled with tragedy.
If nothing else, Button is astonishing in its grandeur and breathtaking in its beauty. Fincher’s trademark meticulousness is fully on display here: There is nary a shot that doesn’t feel perfectly chosen, nor a frame that doesn’t feel carefuly composed. The production and art design faithfully replicate the different decades of American history that the film takes you through. There is so much detail to drink in that the eye can scarcely handle it all. In short, the look of the film is absolutely perfect, and worth watching for that reason alone.
The special effects in this film also represent a remarkable achievement. Rarely has the detailed transformation of a single person from youth to old age been attempted in such a fashion on screen; never before has it been given life as convincingly as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Throughout the film, I marveled at how the 20-year-old Brad Pitt and 80-year-old Brad Pitt both remained indelibly Brad Pitt, despite their vastly different physiques. Credit must also, of course, be given to Blanchett and Pitt, who manage to skillfully portray their characters at multiple different stages of life. The sheer physical evolution of these characters throughout the film is nothing short of extraordinary (and that’s saying nothing about their equally significant emotional journeys).
Despite its flaws, Button is a unique journey worth taking. While the trajectory of Benjamin’s physiology is mostly a gimmick, the film uses it to bring us back to that familiar cinematic theme: the possibility of love under impossible circumstances. Perhaps, underneath all the tragedy, death, and pain, there is hope to be found in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After all, if Benjamin Button could find love and fulfillment with all the considerable circumstances arrayed against him, maybe love is not impossible for us either.
David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10