“Life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get,” intoned Forrest Gump with all the accentuation of a character reciting the tag line from his movie’s poster. Displaying more succinctness and less phony Southern drawl, Benjamin Button says of this mortal coil, “You never know what’s coming for ya.” Though equally obvious in their philosophical tone, both fictional narrators are aiming at the same sweeping, self-actualizing message: That life is an unpredictable affair intended to be lived day to day with much gusto and little regret. ... Hey, as mottos go, it beats “Life sucks, kill yourself.”
Based (conceptually, anyway) on a little-known short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a strange chimera: a Magical Realist romance-cum-20th century biography. As the film opens, we’re in a hospital in New Orleans where--portentiously--Hurricane Katrina is about to hit. Lying in what is surely her deathbed is well-aged Daisy (Cate Blanchett). As she fades in and out of consciousness, Daisy urges her daughter to read a mysterious diary relating the life story of one Benjamin Button.
Our tale-within-a-tale begins at the end of World War I. Born to a prominent New Orleans businessman and his wife, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is a unique child. Upon leaving his dying mother’s womb, Benjamin has all the physical characteristics of a 90-year-old man. Unable to deal with the shock of losing his wife during childbirth and the siring of such a bizarre child, Mr. Button dumps his newborn on the steps of a nearby rooming house.
The rooming house turns out to be an old-age home presided over by willful young caregiver Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Believing this wizened baby to be a gift from God, Queenie vows to raise him as her own--despite claims from doctors that the child won’t survive more than a week or so. But survive Benjamin does, miraculously growing younger and healthier as he ages.
Though it spans a good 80 or 90 years of American history in its telling, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button resists the urge--common to this type of life-panning story--to place its protagonist at the center of every critical moment in 20th Century culture. (Something of which Forrest Gump was clearly guilty.) Benjamin’s story is confined, largely, to the city of New Orleans. After spending his formative years in a wheelchair amongst the elderly residents of Queenie’s convalescent home, Benjamin begins to grow curious about the world at large. Eventually, he ducks out from under his overprotective adoptive mother’s wing and takes a job on a tugboat. With an irascible sea captain as his mentor, Benjamin tours the world, encountering various colorful characters and learning the ways of life and death, love and war.
Still, his thoughts always return to New Orleans where the love of his life awaits. Benjamin first encountered Daisy when they were both “children” while her grandmother exhausted her days under Queenie’s loving care. But Benjamin’s incongruous appearance always created a barrier between the two. Despite the feelings the would-be lovers develop for one another over the decades, they are on polar opposite paths: She’s growing old, he’s growing young. Throughout the course of their lives, they are forever destined to “meet in the middle.” But then what?
The obvious stars here are the special effects, which seamlessly allow Brad Pitt to de-age before our eyes. Impressive as they are, director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) wisely keeps the focus square on his actors (to which you can add ringers Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas and Jason Flemyng). What emerges is an impossible love story. Pitt and Blanchett, with their tight, understated performances, make it convincing and surprisingly moving. Beautiful as this love story is, though, we know it to be doomed.
At nearly three hours, the film does spend an awful lot of time dancing around its central conceit. Given the amount of time devoted to it, there are those who might expect Benjamin to have lived a more exotic life. But Benjamin Button isn’t really about life. Whereas Forrest Gump concerned itself with temporal trivia and simple-minded escapism, Benjamin Button is grounded in heavy emotional truth. (Oddly--or not--screenwriter Eric Roth penned both of these films.) Less about life and more about death, Benjamin Button pits life’s dreams and intentions against the inevitable, unstoppable ticking clock of mortality. Buried in burnished brown lighting and an exquisite sense of despair, Benjamin Button delivers a hefty dose of melancholy.
Life may still be a box of chocolates, but this one’s distinctly bittersweet.