Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Rating:

Brad Pitt Sews Fitzgerald’s Button

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Director: David Fincher

A woman I carpooled with once told me “We’re wishing our lives away” as we muttered about Monday not being Friday.   Her words were not judgmental or condescending; nor were they humorous or light-hearted.  She said the words wistfully and they’ve remained with me for years.

I am reminded of her words after seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a fable that sticks to audiences and reminds us that many people do indeed wish their lives away.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the story of a man living backwards.  We enter the story in a hospital where an elderly woman lies dying as Hurricane Katrina lashes the room’s window.  She asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read aloud from a diary.  The diary is Benjamin Button’s and the audience is catapulted into flashbacks told from the diary narrated by Benjamin with added memories from the woman in the hospital bed.

Benjamin is born with the infirmities of old age and as time passes he grows healthier, taller, stronger… and younger.  His body is living its life in reverse.  We enter his story as New Orleans celebrates the end of  World War I.  Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) is more concerned with his laboring wife than with the jubilant crowds, but his own celebration is shattered by his wife’s death and the terrible visage of his newborn son.  In a moment of grief and cowardice he leaves the baby on the steps of a facility for the elderly.

Benjamin has found a home.

The rest of the film follows this singularly unusual man/boy’s life.  By the age of seven, Benjamin is being played by Brad Pitt via a combination of extraordinary make-up that ages his face and equally extraordinary special effects that allow him to become a child-sized, frail old man.  We journey with Benjamin as he lives a life that by nature has to be extraordinary, yet is still recognizable as ordinary in most ways.  What Benjamin sees, experiences and learns  becomes a sweet, luxurious and leisurely stroll through a period of time as well as through a life well lived.  That Benjamin has been given a “gift” that people wish for every single day is never lost on us — nor is the folly of that wish and the wasted time spent dwelling upon it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is carried by its cast.  Brad Pitt as Benjamin, Cate Blanchett as his lifelong friend, Taraji P. Henson as his surrogate mother and a stunning Tilda Swinton as his first love all prove that a story is only as good as those who give it life.  Pitt has never chosen safe roles and his Benjamin shows he is more than just a pretty face.

Showing childlike wonder with a face covered in make-up and looking like an old man takes guts, but Pitt succeeds.  Not every “little old man” effect is seamless, but even the slightly awkward visual moments hold the appeal of capturing something of the story’s unreal nature.  Not always perfect, but it works.  A beautifully written script frames the performances and David Fincher pulls both together with a sure, steady directorial hand.    Fincher never once seems to doubt his ability to make this sublime fairy tale feel almost real while rending the fabric of our youth-centric culture with its message.

Benjamin sees our lives for what they really are – spans of time filled with chances, opportunities and experiences.  He weaves no soul deadening tale of the fates or how our lives are a series of coincidences and accidents.  As a child living in the body of an old man he doesn’t see the limits of age.  As an old man living in the body of a teenager he understands how little that strong and beautiful outer shell protects from sadness or guarantees acceptance.

Benjamin Button’s entire life debunks the myth of youth equating perfection that permeates and poisons our culture.   Youth is not magical.  Aging is not ugly.  From it all, you get out what you put in.  In a world where age 25 is quickly becoming “over the hill”, we need sorely need to soak up this message, steep and revel in and let it free us from the constant quest to act, look and be young.   That theme, as well as others Fincher shows us (including the role of chance in our lives, the real meaning of family, society’s fear of the elderly and the mortality they represent, what it means to love and how not to get struck by lightning seven times) slip like quicksilver through our fingers as the story meanders along.

Benjamin Button makes us think.

This is not a movie for adrenaline junkies as it leisurely moves through more than two hours.  Benjamin Button is a character study and a fable about lives well lived and those wished away.  A remarkably strong showing by the entire large cast as well as a good script and strong direction make Benjamin Button tick like the hands of a fine clock.   Even the conceit of telling the story in flashback hardly pulls us out of the core tale and when it does, it does so effectively and for good reason.

I’m glad to have seen this film on the big screen; the set design is wonderful allows viewers to lose themselves.  The story won’t suffer in translation to DVD and watching at home might be preferable for those who may suffer from the long run time.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a wonderful, leisurely and affectingly told fairy tale for every adult that ever wished for the magic they thought was youth.

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