Hardly the nostalgic romance it was promoted as being, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about the fleeting nature of happiness, the struggle of life and the inevitability of death. It’s told with generosity and warmth, true, yet even the comfort it offers is the sort usually found next to hospital beds or in funeral homes.
As a matter of fact, the movie opens in a hospital, as a dying older woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) asks her daughter to read to her from a diary that someone named Benjamin Button had left in her care. From there we jump back nearly 80 years to follow the strange life of the title character, who was born in 1918 with all the frailties of a dying man but grew stronger – indeed, younger – as time passed.
With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, two unlikely, seemingly opposing, artistic voices have come together: whimsical, fable-minded screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and obsessive, nearly nihilistic director David Fincher (Fight Club). Roth’s, surprisingly, is the dominant voice.
Aside from an artistic sensibility, Benjamin Button also shares with Gump an uncommonly mature handling of special effects. As in that picture, technical tricks subtly exist to enhance the story rather than for their own, showy sake.
Among other feats, the technology allows Brad Pitt to play Benjamin at every stage of his life. It’s a remarkable, unprecedented performance, though I’m not sure how much credit is due to Pitt and how much is due to the various body doubles, prosthetic artists and computer wizards who assisted him.
No matter who did what, none of the seams show – not when Benjamin is a mental toddler stuck in an octogenarian’s wheelchair; not when he’s a 60-year-old with the vigor of someone in his early 20s; not when he’s a fresh-faced teen who has already spent 60 years on earth. At every stage, the character’s humanity is what you notice first.
Pitt, who is still an underrated actor, pulls off much more than a stunt here. No matter how much technical assistance he got, it is Pitt – speaking as a kid from behind a wrinkled visage – who manages to wring a childlike pathos from the line, “They said I was gonna die soon, but … maybe not.”
That sort of peaceful resignation defines Benjamin, and the movie. The only time he is tempted to curse his fate is midway through his life, when he and Daisy – who he first met when she was a girl and he was an old man – are finally the same age.
Benjamin and Daisy (Blanchett again) have a brief window of opportunity at the midpoints of their lives, and they take advantage by embarking on a picturesque romance. Yet Benjamin, knowing better than most that “nothing lasts,” understands their bliss will some day come to an end.
Loss, you see, is what Benjamin Button is really about. The movie is bookended by the tale of a clockmaker whose son is killed in World War I. He pours his sorrow into a giant clock for a train station that is designed to run backwards – it’s the man’s fruitless attempt to stop time, stop aging, stop death.
What the clock really does, of course, is the same thing that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does: Mournfully remind us that none of those things can be stopped.