In a motion picture that is just about as great as cinema got in 2008, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is its near-perfect depiction of a person's complete life spread out over a series of significant moments. In just a smidge under three hours, director David Fincher (2007's "Zodiac
") encapsulates in all its messiness, heartbreak and glory the process of living, loving and, ultimately, dying. That the protagonist whom we follow happens to age backwards gives the story an extra shot of whimsy, but also an added dose of eye-opening existentialism. Though he becomes more youthful on the outside as the people around him grow old and pass away, there are otherwise very few differences between him and the rest of the world. Like everyone else, he is faced with the internal ravages of time, and the unknown of what is to come after he has breathed his last breath.
As Hurricane Katrina hammers down on a New Orleans hospital in 2005, Caroline (Julia Ormond) sits bedside by her gravely ill elderly mother, Daisy (Cate Blanchett). From her mom's bags Caroline pulls out a diary that Daisy presses her to read aloud. Daisy has never been able to bring herself to open it, and now is her final chance. Its pages, filled with journal entries, photographs, postcards and keepsakes, tells of the life and times of one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), "born under unusual circumstances" in 1918, just as citizens were taking to the streets to celebrate the end of World War I. The size of a newborn but with the appearance of an old man suffering from arthritis and cataracts, Benjamin is promptly dropped off on the doorstep of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a kindly young black woman who runs a home catering to senior citizens. She immediately accepts him as her own without any point of reference on why he is the way he is or how long he has to live. To Queenie's quiet, loving amazement, Benjamin begins to grow, and as he does he slowly begins to peel away the maladies that have left him a seven-year-old just gaining the strength to walk.
Benjamin is a young boy in a seventy-something-year-old's body when he befriends and is quickly bewitched by the radiant, red-haired Daisy, the frequently visiting granddaughter of one of the home's residents. When Benjamin tells her that he isn't as old as he seems, Daisy nods and replies, "I thought so." Their ages may be heading in opposite directions, but Benjamin and Daisy find their paths interconnecting again and again throughout their adult years, the first time after he survives a WWII attack on the tugboat he works on, and later when Daisy is hit by a car and her future as a professional dancer is demolished. If they consummate the love they have for each other, though, what will become of them when their ages begin to drift ever further apart?
Loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" plays like a symphony in the language of film. Meticulously composed, strikingly handsome and fittingly epic, the film runs 167 fast minutes and not a second of a frame is wasted in the telling of Benjamin's days and ways. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (2007's "Lucky You
") bring an inviting literacy to the picture, delving into the small details and lasting memories that remain in a person's conscience even after the rest of them have flown the coup. By viewing the film from Benjamin's eyes, we, for all intents and purposes, become him for over two and a half hours, seeing what he sees, experiencing what he experiences, in all of life's unanticipated rewards, human connections and hurtful heartbreak. We know the endingit is the same ending that we all must havewhich makes his decision to see the world and not waste a moment of the time he has been given all the more poignantly resonant.
When a freshly adult Benjamin (looking to be about sixty-five) bids his mother, Queenie, good-bye and heads out into the world, he promises to keep corresponding by postcard to Daisy. It is on one of these that he tells her he has fallen in love for the first time, a declaration that cuts Daisy like a knife. Staying at a cozy Russian hotel during the winter season before reconvening with Captain Mike's (Jared Harris) tugboat crew, Benjamin happens upon meeting fellow guest Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), a British trade minister's wife whom he first describes as being "plain as paper." Nonetheless, he and Elizabeth become enamored with their time spent together, their ritual of meeting in the lobby of the hotel and chatting until almost dawn over a cup of tea a nightly occurrence. These scenes between Elizabeth and Benjamin are breathtaking in their power and simplicity, almost a short film in and of themselves, exquisitely setting up the kind of fleeting romantic relationship that will always stay with you.
Elizabeth, who failed years ago at her attempt to swim the length of the English Channel, has settled into middle age, regretting the decisions she has made and the promises to herself that she hasn't kept. Again and again, the notion of time and the cruel dwindling nature of it once more rears its head, just as it is always evident in regards to all the people met along Benjamin's personal journey, just as it is prevalent in the prologue, where clockmaker Monsieur Gâteau (Elias Koteas), mourning the loss of his only son to the war, constructs a train station clock that intentionally ticks in reverse. In a noteworthy supporting performance that lingers even after she is gone from the screen, Tilda Swinton (2008's "Burn After Reading
") clings to the chance to play a character who is a good deal warmer that the ice queens she typically plays. Sad-eyed but compassionate, yearning for a reason to smile, Swinton's Elizabeth is unforgettable.
Of course, it is no secret that Benjamin and Daisy are soul mates. Close as children and less so as adults, the two of them nonetheless see each other a handful of times in their young adult years. The timing isn't right, but they are drawn together, destined as a couple just as Daisy is destined to be hit by a car one day while she is working in Paris. In a sweeping, ingenious montage, Fincher crafts a series of seemingly disconnected eventsi.e. a man who oversleeps by five minutes, a woman who forgets her umbrella, a ringing telephone, a stop at a bakerythat all come together and lead up to Daisy's life-altering accident. Were one thing to have been different, the car and Daisy never would have met. This sequence rings so honest and true, making such a potent statement about the laws of fate and circumstance, that it's really something quite extraordinary to ponder. When the stars finally align just right and Benjamin and Daisy take on a relationship, it is ideal: they are both roughly the same external age and are free to travel, sail, make a home for themselves, and experience the exciting changes of the 1960s as one. Unfortunately, like everything else, there is an ending just as there is a beginning. Daisy is bound to get wrinkled and saggy as Benjamin edges toward physical youth, and things only grow more potentially complicated and impossible when an unforeseen development puts a corkscrew in their plans.
It would be easy to overlook the visual effects artistry running throughout "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," since the work done is so advanced and so seamless that it doesn't feel at all like the results of computers. The steps taken to transform Brad Pitt into Benjamin Button through nearly every phase of his life are awe-inspiring, from an old man the height of a seven-year-old to the Brad Pitt from almost twenty years ago. The effects and Oscar-worthy make-up, which also serve to take Cate Blanchett from a teenager to a woman in her eighties, are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda (2006's "Failure to Launch
") is vibrant and lush, at once earthy, nostalgic and transcendent in its representation of New Orleans and every other corner of the world Benjamin ventures off to. A scene set in the Florida Keys as a rocket blasts off in the distance is lovely, as are the snowy, blustery interludes in Russia. To a fault, landscapes are picturesque without being superficial, and the brief battle sequence that incorporates submarines, ships and torpedoes holds a rhythm and cohesiveness to the plot that the recent, similar-in-length "Australia
" did not.
The other area that "Australia
" bombed while this film does not is in the love story at its center. In "Australia
," the romance between Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman felt obvious, strenuous and unconvincing, on hand for the sole reason that every film trying to ape the style of "Gone with the Wind" needs one. By comparison, the romance that ebbs, flows, sparks and recoils between Benjamin and Daisy is nothing less than genuine, passionate, and symbolic of any person's truest love. These are flawed characters, and Daisy, especially in her twenties, is temperamental, but the fire within them and the unmistakable bonding and contentment that happens when they join forces are elements rarely captured to such a palpable degree on film. The tragedy of what is to become of them is inevitable, lending an immediacy to the proceedings whenever they share the frame.
In one of his best performances to date, Brad Pitt doesn't step wrong as Benjamin Button, a virtuous but not saintly man who has never lost his sense of wonder. When Daisy asks him at one point what it is like to grow younger, he doesn't have an answer because he hasn't known anything else. Just like us. As Daisy, Cate Blanchett is a little chilly at the onset, but there is a reason for such, and the metamorphosis of the character over the span of a lifetime is masterfully played. Daisy's fears of aging and her regrets over what could have been are juxtaposed throughout with snapshots of sheer joy and embraced freedom. Finally, Taraji P. Henson (2007's "Smokin' Aces
") is a beacon of love and light as the welcoming Queenie, not just a mother figure for Benjamin, but the only mother he has.
There will be viewers who connect the odyssey in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" to those taken in 1994's "Forrest Gump" (also written by Eric Roth) and 1994's "Interview with the Vampire" (also starring Brad Pitt), but to write it off in such a way is unfair. What director David Fincher has accomplished with this one-of-a-kind stroke of brilliance is astounding, its breadth, scope and vitality unequaled by any other release this year. A drama, a love story, a classic grown-up fablethe film uses a fantastical premise as a jumping-off point for a tough rumination on the bliss of living and the mortality we all have to face. Even New Orleans, faced with Hurricane Katrina in the wraparound story, isn't safe, and the realization that nothing last forever is so identifiable that the picture's unforced emotions and silent inferences become overwhelming the further into the story the viewer gets. The concluding passages are particularly piercing from a guttural level. Akin to seeing one's life flash before his or her eyes, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is simultaneously uplifting, devastating, and achingly human.