Let's not mince words: the realities of aging and dying are not exactly the loveliest topics you could be thinking about. This is why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is such a quietly remarkable and heartfelt story about exactly those two things, told through the eyes of a man who finds one impossible and the other inevitable.
"Are you afraid?" a woman asks her dying mother who is lying in her hospital bed. "I'm curious as to what comes after," she replies, and soon requests her daughter to read from an old diary she has kept with her for years.
And so begins The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the story of a boy who is born with the physique of an ancient man, and mysteriously grows younger as time passes. Abandoned by his horrified father on the steps of a nursing home in New Orleans, he's found by a black woman who lovingly raises him as her own son. He grows up surrounded by constant reminders of mortality and impermanence, and we follow his life through his diary from impressionable old age to a wiser youth, learning about the people he meets, loves, and inspires. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs the course of history from the eve of the end of World War I to the coming of hurricane Katrina, when the title character's fate is finally revealed.
Mark Twain once remarked that "Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen." Benjamin Button is based on a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald sparked from that quote. The movie takes its inspiration from the original work, but is quite different in approach. The plot has much more in common with Forrest Gump, which might not be surprising since the screenplay is also written by Eric Roth.
You have a core story being retold through a narrator in flashbacks. It features a quiet, accepting and often misunderstood protagonist who keenly observes the world around him. He's raised by an endearing mother figure who teaches him grounding life lessons, namely the message that you never know what's coming. It all runs alongside a backdrop of remarkable historical events. And yes, there's a sweet childhood love interest who grows into a spirited young woman, and who only comes to reconcile her dreams and her love for the main character much later in life, after great personal adversity.
It looks quite blatant when listed out, but an important difference is that Forrest Gump was the story of an ordinary man doing extraordinary things, while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the tale of an extraordinary man trying to live an ordinary life. Due to Benjamin's condition and his self-awareness, it comes out a darker and more depressing tale - but still an uplifting one that mirrors the highs and lows of life, reflecting the things we all experience.
And like life, the funny and inane hit you every so often when you least expect them. Some moments are just too morbidly amusing, like the elderly man who keeps popping up to tell the same stories of all the times he was hit by lightning (these stories are accompanied by brief but hilarious silent-movie shots of his accidents, and the audience cheered every time he appeared at the showing I attended). As you'd hope to expect from a cast starring recognized talents like Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the acting is wonderful. This is true for both the big names and the lesser known faces, and the best moments of the film are often the most understated ones. The aging special effects (advanced Contour motion capture technology, as well as good old fashioned makeup) are quite realistic and serve the movie well.
There's a neo-parable at the beginning of the film about a blind watchmaker and a clock that runs backwards, that initially lends a fairy tale quality to the story but feels more like a red herring as we move on. The hurricane in the framing story also feels like an afterthought. But otherwise The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautifully and lovingly crafted piece. It is a deeply philosophical movie, but also a gentle one, articulating the fears we all have about aging, death, and finding meaning in life. This case is both curious and well worth exploring.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button