"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
I’m seldom accused of being sentimental. And I’m not often made emotional by movies. In fact, even though I know it may lead to my being labeled un-American, I’ll proudly stand up and declare that I hated that touchstone “touching” classic Forrest Gump. I found it to be frighteningly sweet, predictable and well, boring. I was therefore surprised to find myself teary at a recent screening of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a film that shares many parallels and was even penned by the same scriptwriter, Eric Roth
Based on a lesser short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the flick tells the tale of Benjamin Button (portrayed with quiet subtlety by Brad Pitt) who ages backwards. That is to say that he’s born a wrinkled pint-sized chap of 80-ish, with all of the companion afflictions; arthritis, hard-of-hearing, weak heart. His appearance is disturbing, both to the audience and to his onscreen father, who ultimately abandons him hours after his birth. At the same time, there’s something softly beautiful about Benjamin.
Arriving at the doorstep of a New Orleans old-folks home and into the loving care of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the black house manager, Button spends his developmental years amidst his peers, at least by physical standards. As the aging and de-aging progresses he evolves from wheelchair to braces. His eyesight sharpens. His muscles strengthen. His peers die off. And soon he encounters Daisy, the young granddaughter of a fellow resident.
Their secret encounters of meeting under the dining table by lamplight are sweet and completely innocent, but his appearance still adds a tinge of the creepy. It’s pretty clear that they will be the ultimate mismatch. When she’s a beaming wide-eyed teenager full of wanderlust, he’s physically a man of 60. Their lifelong off-step dance is the real beauty of the story. There’s only a brief time where they’re in synch and before Benjamin begins to de-evolve, simultaneously displaying acne and the onset of dementia. I don’t think it would be a spoiler to point out…he’s gonna die as an infant.
Benjamin’s travels are documented throughout the three-hour film. He spends time on a tugboat with a grump of a sea captain (scenes that felt most like they were plucked from Forrest Gump) and is seduced by a flawless Tilda Swinton in dark and snowy Russia.
His backwards walking underscores one of the absurdities of life’s carousel: we gain wisdom when it’s often too late to do us much good. We embrace a devil-may-care philosophy when there’s much less risk…and much less potential win.
My one dislike was the technique of having Daisy narrate the story on her deathbed to her estranged daughter while hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. I’m sure it was symbolic of cleansing or the washing away of the magic that created Benjamin to begin with or something, but it felt like a throwaway. And the lovely Julia Ormond was certainly wasted in the role of the estranged daughter.
Due to the complexities of the movie’s themes and its daunting length you may, like myself, need a few days to sort it out. Maybe it’s better to just enjoy the ride.