Film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
Much of life is a confluence of events. Things happen, and these things cause other things to happen. Ripples in a pond, if you will, flowing ever outward, bumping into each other, and changing the pattern. This, more than anything, is the central theme of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There’s more to it, of course, and the film goes on at length about this idea, and about fate, and love, and kismet. Hell, the thing is close to three hours long—it had better be about more than just one thing for that length.
The tale is one of magical realism, set in the current world, but filled with the sort of wonder that only the movies or a particular type of book can provide. The film starts with the story of a blind clockmaker whose son is killed in World War I. As a testament to his son, he creates a clock that runs backwards, hoping to turn back time, hoping that this would bring his son back. At the same time, Benjamin Button (played by a variety of actors, most notably Brad Pitt), is born. He is born an ancient, wizened thing—cataracts, no hearing, ossified joints and arthritis. As the film continues, it becomes evident that he is growing younger while everyone around him grows older.
We follow Benjamin through his life, starting at a retirement home in New Orleans where his father (Jason Felmyng) abandoned him, terrified of the ancient baby his wife died giving birth to. Here he is raised by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and her paramour Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, whose first name would be a hell of a Scrabble word).
When Benjamin is about seven and looks about 80, he encounters the main love of his life for the first time in the person of Daisy (also played by several actors, primarily Cate Blanchett). Daisy will enter and leave his life over and over throughout the course of the movie. It is the fate of these two and their relationship with which the film is primarily focused, after all. However, because she is aging like the rest of the world and he is aging in reverse, their relationship has a doomed quality to it, truly blooming only when the two of them are similar in age.
Benjamin leads an interesting life, traveling the world as a crewman on a tugboat, seeing a little action during World War II when his ship is shot out from under him by a German U-boat. He continues to show back up in New Orleans, reconnecting with his adopted mother, and eventually with his actual father. Throughout this, Daisy continues to come back into his life for short stretches that end when one of them leaves the other for one circumstance or another.
All of this is told in flashback as Daisy lays dying in a hospital bed in New Orleans, just on the brink of Hurricane Katrina. Benjamin’s story is being read from his journal by Daisy’s daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), with frequent interruptions and remembrances from Daisy. We learn well into the film that Caroline is the daughter of Benjamin, and not the man she believed to be her father.
The culmination of the film is essentially what you would probably expect. Benjamin is growing younger physically and older mentally, eventually ending up with Alzheimer’s in the body of a toddler. Daisy is growing older normally, trying to care for an irascible infant who continues to regress physically at the end of his life. While the ending may be uplifting, it certainly isn’t anything I’d call happy.
The most obvious parallel film is Forrest Gump, but I like this movie a hell of a lot better. The connection here is that both films tell the story of an ordinary man leading an extraordinary life. But there are other obvious connections as well, not the least of which is that both films came from the pen of the same screenwriter. The women in both films fly in and out of the main character’s life, settling down with him when it suits her and regardless of what he might think, desire, or feel. Both take place primarily in the South, feature a lot of action on a small boat, and have the title character inherit a great deal of money in one form or another.
And yet, I really hate Forrest Gump, and I liked this movie fairly well. I like the characters more here for one thing, and that helps a great deal. I like the story more here as well—Benjamin is a fascinating character who is worth watching and worth becoming involved with as a member of the audience.
The performances here are excellent, with the breakout belonging to Taraji P. Henson, who is magnificent. Fincher is an excellent director as well—one of my current favorites—and he does a lot with his cast and with the story. It would be easy to turn this movie into a full-blown fantasy of magical thinking, something like a dramatic Field of Dreams about romantic love instead of baseball and daddy issues, but Fincher plays it pretty straight. For the most part, the only truly outré part of the film is Benjamin’s issues with aging.
This is not a happy film by any stretch of the imagination, though. The ending is perhaps a foregone conclusion, based on how it begins, with Daisy gasping her last in a hospital bed while the most destructive hurricane in decades begins to pound the New Orleans shoreline. Despite this, there is a particular beauty to it and to the way the story unfolds. \
If I have a complaint here, it’s similar to one of my complaints I have with Forrest Gump. In Gump, Jenny comes across as a selfish, awful person even if we are supposed to think otherwise. Similarly, Daisy is terribly selfish—much of what is revealed here, including her ballet career, is unknown by her daughter until she reads of it in Benjamin’s diary. I find it difficult to find such characters sympathetic. Queenie at one point says, “I never took you to be the selfish type” to Daisy. How wrong she was for thinking that, and how right she was for saying it.
Why to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Because sometimes the best way to find value and affirmation in the real world is to see it in a magical one.
Why not to watch: Why does Hollywood forever give us terrible selfish characters who end up getting what they want?