Rating: 3.5 stars
“I was born under unusual circumstances,” says our hero at the beginning of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This massive understatement introduces us to Benjamin (Brad Pitt), not just the unusual circumstances under which he was born, but the matter-of-fact way in which this extraordinary man views his life.
You see, Benjamin is aging in reverse. He was born an old man—or at least with the appearance and health of an old man—and he gets younger and younger with each passing year. Benjamin implicitly understands his fate: He will become middle aged, then young; he will eventually look like a child, then an infant, and then he will die.
This condition is obviously a curse of sorts, but in its own way, it’s a blessing. Unlike his peers, who grow older and more feeble, Benjamin feels more vigorous with time (but this, of course, is part of the curse, too; who among us wants to be so very different from our loved ones and friends?). Since most people assume he is an old man, Benjamin can observe the world quietly—he is granted access to adult worlds that would otherwise be off-limits. Most of all, his condition is a human barometer of sorts, he’s able to separate those who recoil from his strange state and those who remain faithful and true.
Truest of all was the woman who took him in and become his mother, Queenie (marvelous Taraji P. Henson), an inn-keeper who understood in the most basic of ways that all creatures needed to be mothered and loved.
Based very loosely on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is filled with wonder and awe—part fairy tale and part coming-of-age (in reverse), with huge doses of adventure and romance to boot. (It also has certain eerie elements of a horror film; although it is too gentle-natured to be truly scary.)
The first part of the film—which contain some of its most lyrical sequences—takes place in the boarding house for the geriatric that Queenie runs (here is where Benjamin encounters the old people who readily share with him their stories). The adventure comes in the form of the tugboat that Benjamin works on (he becomes a more robust seaman with each passing year), getting life advice along the way from its salty, big-hearted captain (Jared Harris). The romance comes twice—first, when Benjamin falls for Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the sophisticated and lonely wife of a government agent who is probably 20 years his senior, but looks to be 20 years younger. Later, Benjamin reconnects with his boyhood crush Daisy (played as a gamine, an adult, and a dying old woman by Cate Blanchett). Now they can meet “in the middle” and marry, with predictably complicated results. (Alas, the romance between Daisy and Benjamin is one of the more conventional aspects of the film—not bad, just uninspired—and the one thing keeping this from being a four star review.)
One of the sly tricks of the film is that as Benjamin gets younger, he starts looking more and more like, well, Brad Pitt. He goes from shriveled and weak to arguably one of the most handsome men alive. The special effects are amazing: not only are we convinced early on that Pitt is a shrunken old prune in a wheelchair (it’s actually Pitt’s face on a body double) but at some point, the filmmakers are actually able to make him look younger than he does in real life—a feat that I’m certain will inspire actors to line up to work with Fincher in the future.
I fear that Pitt’s performance—with its straight-forward, laconic narration and quiet dignity—will go overlooked. Sticklers might quibble that his New Orleans accent isn’t always spot-on, but I’ll take Pitt’s emotional clarity and resonance any day over a perfect Louisiana drawl.
As for director David Fincher, the enfant terrible auteur of such films as Fight Club and Seven, he really comes of age here. We always knew he was a brilliant technician, but with Benjamin Button, he finds his soul.
He’s made a gentle, profound, and achingly beautiful film—a holiday gift to us all.