2008. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett. Directed by David Fincher.
There are many deaths in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; that is, there are many lives lived. I say that because, if what this story tells us can be boiled down to a single point, it’s that, in order to live, you must accept that you will die.
To make this point as simply and gracefully as the movie does, it shows us the life of a man born into a physically old body that becomes younger as he ages. In all other ways, he experiences the joys and pains that everyone experiences: the loss of those he loves, the missed opportunities, the chances taken and the regrets carried.
I wasn’t excited to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in the theaters. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it at all. It seemed gimmicky, too much like a movie I really don’t like, Forrest Gump, which shares a screenwriter. Well, this is the movie that Forrest Gump should have been. Instead of putting the lead character at the center of all of our lifetime’s keystone moments, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) experiences all the changes of mid-century America, but from the perspective of an average man, however physically unique.
Benjamin is born as his mother dies, and his distraught father, who sees a wrinkled and crooked infant, drops him on the doorstep of a New Orleans old folks home. He is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Nelson), who will care for and raise him, as he grows from an invalid baby into a spritely senior citizen. His time in the old folks home is enlightening, as those around him “pass” every day, while others are obsessed with their memories while they can still hold them. He meets people he’ll remember long after they’re gone, and he’ll meet the love of his life, although she is just a girl. Upon reaching 17 years of age, he feels restless and leaves to find adventure and purpose, a young man with stiff bones and receding gray hair. His travels and experiences shape who he is, as they do anyone, and he keeps returning home to find others have passed, or moved on, or changed.
Benjamin’s story is told through the reading of his diary by Caroline to Daisy (Kate Blanchett), her dying mother, the young woman that Benjamin loved, in a New Orleans hospital directly in the path of a hurricane. Caroline makes a point to say goodbye to her mother, and reading the diary seems like a way to pass the time, but there is much to learn in the telling of Benjamin’s story. From the beginning, with the tale of a clock that runs backward, created so that the time and people we’ve lost will come back to us, to the end of the story, when memories bring back to us the times we’ve had and the people we’ve loved before they are washed away forever.
David Fincher gently handles this story within a story, with changing perspectives in time, surrounding characters who move forward and backward in time. The scenes are dark and often quiet, with much of it set during late nights and early mornings, and traveling from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean to New York and Paris, and back again to New Orleans. The characters who fill Benjamin’s life are colorful and genuine, from the sweet and loving Queenie to the tugboat captain who considers his tattoos as his art, and who helps the elderly youth cross a few of life’s most-memorable thresholds.
One of the characters’ turning points comes through a clever portrayal of how we dance around with fate, illustrating how many small acts can build into events that can knock us off course. Telling that story of missed chances and unfortunate timing enforces my belief that, if fate is real, it must be so complicated and unpredictable that we cannot reliably foresee anything. What holds Benjamin back from being what he wants to be — a lover, a husband, a father — is the uniqueness of his physical condition. For the rest of us, it is our own unique circumstances. But whatever it is, the movie tells us, it’s not too late to “start again.”
This movie struck a surprising chord with me, given the way life has appeared to me over the past few years. Some lines seem like they’ve just come out of my mouth. I know I’ve said, as Benjamin says at a happy moment, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” And whether it’s an optimistic outlook or a threat, I agree with Queenie’s sentiment that “you never know what’s comin’ for you.” You might be surprised, as I was, by what you’ll feel watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.