Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) begins his story by telling us that he was born "under unusual circumstances." Boy, was he ever. When his mother, who died during childbirth, delivered him, Benjamin was the size of a baby but in every other respect looked like an old man. His father was horrified, and dropped him off on the steps of a nursing home where a young African-American employee named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) found and raised him. It eventually becomes clear that Benjamin, for reasons as nebulous to him as to us, ages in reverse. During his "childhood" years, he hangs out with the senior citizens, although he has little in common with them on the inside.
The movie follows Benjamin as he goes through his life, appearing younger and younger while everyone around him grows older. His unusual appearance makes him feel lonely, and so he wanders from one adventure to the next, always trying to find somewhere he can fit in. Benjamin works on a tugboat, has an affair with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy, inherits his long-lost father's button factory and, most importantly, reconnects with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). As a girl, she used to visit her grandmother at the home, where she befriended Benjamin. It was, on his part, love at first sight. While not far apart in age, he looked decades older than she did, making any greater kind of relationship impossible.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an unusual film in that it has a story but not a plot. What I mean by that is that the movie doesn't follow the standard "formula" for how events have to occur. You can easily describe a picture like, for instance, Yes Man. You meet the character, he accepts an opportunity that presents itself, complications ensue, he solves them (one way or another), everyone lives happily ever after. Most movies follow some version of this formula. Benjamin Button, on the other hand, meanders from one thing to another, just like a life. Benjamin is not on any particular quest; he is merely following experiences, trying to find some kind of meaning to his bizarre existence.
Most of the key people he encounters teach him a lesson about loss and/or death. Or, perhaps, he just sees it that way since it's a subject that is always on his mind. (Considering he ages backwards, how will he die?) Death is certainly the key theme to the film. Benjamin sees life and death from a different perspective. As others come in and out of his orbit, he realizes that he's been where they are going, and vice versa. It strikes him as weird. While everyone else edges toward old age, he's not only been there but come through it.
I love the way the movie explores this idea and the impact it has on Benjamin. As an old-looking child, adults talk to him as though he is more sophisticated and worldly than he really is; his appearance fools them into forgetting he's just a kid. Then, as a young-looking adult, he sees others heading in the direction he just came from. They lose hair as he grows it. They get wrinkles while his fade. Their muscles get sore while he becomes more limber. He's never on the same wavelength with peers, which adds to feelings of loneliness and isolation, despite the fact that he's surrounded by people.
Then there's his relationship with Daisy. Years later, they meet in the middle, only to find that their chemistry is undeniable. They've finally caught up to each other, although Benjamin fears where the relationship can go from there. Certainly an old woman cannot appear to be in a relationship with a young child.
It's no fair telling how things end, except to say that Benjamin's voiceover throughout the film builds to his expression of an important lesson learned. Is it a lesson only he can understand? No, it's something we all fundamentally get at one point or another. But learning that lesson through his eyes makes us experience it differently. Maybe the greatest compliment I can pay The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is to say that it doesn't tell you anything you don't already know, but it does make you look at it from a different angle, which makes it feel new.
Looking back, I see this has not been a typical review. I have not talked about the acting (although it's excellent), or the gorgeous cinematography, or the extraordinary special effects that allow Brad Pitt to convincingly play the character at various ages. I have not mentioned the inventive direction from David Fincher, who steps light years away from pictures like Fight Club and Zodiac to show a completely different side of his talents. My failure to mention these things before now has nothing to do with their lack of quality; all of them combine to help make Benjamin Button the masterpiece it is. No, my reason for pushing them to the end is that, as fine as they are, it's the cumulative impact that makes the movie come to life. All these different elements join together to create a film that stirs your thoughts about the journey of life - its beginnings and endings, and all the stuff in between. What's most entertaining is how the movie puts you in a philosophical mood. This particular viewing experience is not like being on the edge of your seat, or laughing yourself silly, or being scared out of your wits. Benjamin Button washes over you in an almost hypnotic way. Call it cinematic mediation. By following Benjamin, you start to ponder your own existence, to think about how your journey is similar to his.
And right there, you have the point of the film. No matter what happens to you in life, no matter what sets you apart, being human puts you on a path that is shared by everyone. We all have a beginning and an end. It's what you do between those things that counts.
I had a very strong reaction to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and I considered writing about the things it brought to my mind as I watched. Then I decided against it. You should have your own experience with the film. What it stirs in you will be different from what it stirred in me, and yet I am certain we could find common ground in our perceptions.
It's hard to find the right words to describe the sensation I had from my theater seat, but I hope one thing is crystal clear: this is a very special movie.
( out of four)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes.
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