George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Not so in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which the Oscar-nominated Brad Pitt, playing the title character, ages in reverse.
Director David Fincher’s intriguing epic opens with an old woman named Daisy (an extremely aged Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, telling her daughter a story. It’s about a man named Gateau, a blind clockmaker, who was commissioned to design a clock to be hung in the New Orleans train station.
He designs the clock after his only son leaves to fight in World War I, but before the clock’s completion, he receives news of his son’s death. When the clock is finally unveiled, it runs in reverse. Gateau’s explanation: he hoped that time could bring his son back to him. It’s a sad opening that effectively sets the tone for the film.
Obviously, there’s something profoundly sad and lonely about Benjamin’s circumstances. As a baby he looks like an old (albeit infant sized) wrinkled man of 80. His mother dies in childbirth and his father, horrified at Benjamin’s appearance, abandons him in front of a nursing home, run by the spirited Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Henson earned an Oscar nomination for her role here, largely because she is able to transcend the stereotype that her role could have become by infusing it with warmth and heart.
It becomes quickly apparent the Benjamin is in fact getting younger as time passes, and he has to endure his friends in the nursing home dying around him. The film makes the heavy-handed link in these early moments between old age and infancy—at these points in our lives we are dependant, needy, and fragile. Heavy-handed: yes. Heartfelt: also yes.
Screenwriter Eric Roth is known for the similarly epic fable “Forrest Gump,” and the two films share a central conceit of a journeyman searching for himself as the years pass. Pitt’s performance seems largely impassive, but his work is quite complex beneath the surface. Benjamin retains a childlike naïveté and willingness to really live life, not letting it pass him by, and Pitt is in full control of both of these endearing qualities.
He is helped not only by the amazing makeup/special effects that allow him to eerily age backward (seeing Pitt in his 20s and 30s is remarkable and jarring) but by the luminous Blanchett. Roth made it difficult for Jenny and Forrest to be together in “Forrest Gump,” and Daisy and Benjamin have hurdles of their own. Except for a few blissful years spent together in their 40s, the two will never be the same age. Benjamin knows this and makes the difficult decision to leave Daisy after they have a child together, believing that their daughter “deserves a father, not a playmate.”
Many years later, an elderly Daisy receives a phone call from an awkward and confused 12-year-old who, the doctors are bewildered to report, seems to be suffering from mild dementia. Talk about a wrenching denouement: Daisy, an old grandmother-type, cares for the love of her life as he goes from awkward preteen, to toddler, to infant.
Earlier in the film, Benjamin says, “I will go out of this world the same way I came in—alone.” We all do, but not all of us have managed to live such an extraordinary life. While this film is overlong and can be heavy-handed, it is also beautiful and touching. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is quite a journey.