The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has earned a heap of Golden Globe nominations and critical acclaim. I’m on break between semesters, so I took time out—from playing WALL-E for PlayStation2 and re-watching BSG 4.0—to see what the fuss was about.
The film follows the life of one unusual man and his lover around the globe and over the better part of a century. There’s romance, drama, war, dancing, and, oh yes, the guy ages in reverse. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it is an expansive film, moving slowly and artfully. I loved the New Orleans setting and all the historical details (beginning in 1918 and continuing to present day). It’s a sad and charming movie—sort of a Southern fairy tale. Do people make movies like this anymore? It was like watching Gone With the Wind or Forrest Gump but with fantastic, mythological themes.
Baby Benjamin comes into the world like a tiny, wizened old man and grows progressively younger as he ages. This phenomenon is brought about through the mysterious, magical actions of a local clockmaker, who builds a huge clock to run backwards. The clock, placed in a New Orleans train station, symbolizes the clockmaker’s wish that his son, who died in World War I, might somehow come back to life through the reversal of time. Is Benjamin this man’s son reincarnated? It’s never explained.
It’s an emotionally rich film, and beautiful to watch. The stunning visuals and rich palette make it engrossing and dreamlike. The effects, including hours of prosthetics and makeup to age the characters, are impressive, and make Benjamin’s unbelievable circumstances realistic.
The title character has a full and compelling life. He travels the world. He’s a sailor and gets involved in World War II. He owns a button factory. He has an affair in Russia with the wife of a diplomat. He has a lifelong romance with the ballerina Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett. After seeing Blanchett and Pitt in Benjamin Button and Babel, I don’t think they have great screen chemistry. But the duo’s acting is still good, and propped up by a stellar supporting cast: the many people, both ordinary and extraordinary, who brush against Benjamin and give his life meaning.
But to what end is this aging in reverse? It infuses the whole movie with a sense of melancholy. Seeing Benjamin born old, visibly haunted by the specter of death from infancy, makes his life seem more fragile. Benjamin acts as a dark reminder that we are all dying. The extreme of being old when one is young and vice versa frames the cyclical and repetitious nature of life. Benjamin is born in New Orleans and, in spite of all his travels, is on an invisible tether to the place, particularly to the rest home in which he grows up. His life begins and ends there, just as he returns throughout his life to Daisy, his adoptive mother, his father, and his rest home friends.
I’m generally not a fan of slow dramas, but I did find Benjamin Button touching and gorgeous to watch. I recommend seeing it in the theatre for the visuals. And if not, rent it for the renewed appreciation it will give you for life and death it’s a small price to pay for a dose of philosophy and magic.