Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Poster

The premise underlying The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might sound more appropriate for a science fiction tale than a meditative drama. Indeed, the concept of a man aging backward has formed the basis for more than one sci-fi tinged story - from novels to an animated Star Trek episode - but the source material for this film is a 1922 short written by acclaimed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. The original "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" functions as little more than an inspiration for this movie, which takes the idea and the name and follows a divergent path from the one mapped out by Fitzgerald. David Fincher's film is its own entity and, despite some minor flaws, it is undeniably engrossing and one of the more intriguing and emotionally resonant features of the 2008 holiday season.

Chaos theory - the idea that small perturbations in the natural order in one place can cause ripple effects to be felt far and wide - lies at the heart and soul of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The only constant in life is change and it happens whether driven by fate (or kismet) or chance. One delicious vignette provides an explicit example as a car accident results from a series of small, seemingly unrelated interim incidents. Remove any one and that accident would not have happened. And, take away the accident and the rest of the movie would have moved on a different path toward a alternate ending. Life is like that. We never know whether any given action will vanish like a stone tossed into a pond or whether the ripples of that toss will build into a tsunami.

The film takes us on a tour of the 20th century, even though it begins in the 21st. It opens in August 2005 in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Louisiana city. Lying on her deathbed is an 80-year woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who is being attended by her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond). To pass the time, Caroline reads from the diary of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), whose life repeatedly intersected with and diverged from that of her mother. When there are gaps in the story, Daisy summons enough energy and breath to fill them in.

When Benjamin is born in 1918, he is effectively an old man - the size of a baby but afflicted with all of the problems of the aged. The birth kills Benjamin's mother and, unable to cope with his son's monstrous appearance, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) abandons him. Benjamin is found and raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). By the time he is five or six, he has grown enough to appear like a stooped old man of about 80. And, with each passing year, he becomes younger. His path first crosses Daisy's when he is 13 and he confesses to her that he is younger than he looks. She will become the love of his life, but it will be decades before they find each other.

If there's a Forrest Gump quality to the movie, that's unsurprising, considering that the screenwriter, Eric Roth, was responsible for both scripts. Like Forrest, Benjamin is an outcast of society, and history marches by him in a series of vignettes. But director David Fincher's darker side is in evidence. Benjamin does not share Forrest's charmed existence. For him, life is not a box of chocolates, and Jenny does not lie at the end of the rainbow. The ending of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may feel a little rushed, but it is also elegiac. Many may see this as a more grown-up version of Forrest Gump, but it feels to me like something from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, who enjoys playing with time and conventions in much the way Fincher and Roth do here.

The film is structured to comprise three major segments. The first represents Benjamin's childhood, when his seemingly failing physical appearance is belied by his increasing mental agility. For someone with his disability, he is surprisingly well adjusted, but some of that comes from having a loving mother. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's second act occurs just before, during, and after World War II. That's when the main character enters into an affair with a middle-aged British woman (Tilda Swinton) in Russia, serves aboard a tugboat during the conflict, and returns home looking more hale and healthy than when he left. Finally, the third piece of the puzzle follows Benjamin from middle age into his golden years, when he learns a few things about sacrifice and redefining life and happiness.

For the most part, the acting is of the highest quality, with supporting performers like Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris (as the captain of the tugboat aboard which Benjamin finds service), and Julia Ormond making the most of limited screen time. Cate Blanchett brings vibrancy and spirit to Daisy. Brad Pitt, however, is marginally less successful. His portrayal is solid but lacks the extra element necessary to catapult it into greatness. When Benjamin looks old, Pitt plays him as old, not as a young man trapped in a much older body. And when Benjamin looks young, Pitt plays him with the verve of a young man, not as an "old soul." The subtleties are missing and this may be the single element that could make it difficult for some to accept the premise.

As far as that is concerned, either you believe Benjamin's situation or you don't. The screenplay attempts to provide a little grounding for the reverse aging, but it's not especially convincing. As a result, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button must be viewed on its own terms, as a fairy tale, or it utterly fails. One thing that helps is the movie's amazing attention to period detail. During the 1920s, it feels like the post-WWI flapper era. The Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War times are all effectively reconstructed and special effects are used to enhance the visual experience, not to detract from it by overwhelming the viewer. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is every bit as impressive to look at as the summer blockbusters, but there's a real story to go along with the pretty images and potent atmosphere.

Although the movie is presented as a series of vignettes, its full impact is not felt until the whole is absorbed. Even the 2005 scenes with Caroline by her mother's bedside feed into what Fincher and Roth are saying about chaos theory, fate, and the sometimes unforgiving jolts imparted by change. In the end, Benjamin's reverse-aging is just a filter that allows us to gain a slightly skewed perception about the process of living and, perhaps by looking through that glass darkly, a better understanding of human nature. Is that too much for a mainstream movie to achieve? Perhaps, and I'm not sure The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes us as far down that path as it might hope to. But there's no denying the film's power of compulsion and the sense that, when it's all over, it means something. Most viewers will be entertained and moved, and some will find their intellect aroused. The source material may be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has come a long way from where it started 86 years ago.

Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The (United States, 2008)

Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2008
Run Time: 2:46
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1