A man is born and grows young: this brilliant reversal, from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, shines a new light on all the commonplaces of life. They say that when people have cataracts removed they see everything with a new brightness and intensity of color, even if they didn’t realize they were missing anything before. In Benjamin Button, everything — birth, growth, death, love, separation, joy, pain — is recognizable but seen afresh, and with poignant intensity.
All that, and the Faustian allure of growing young again and finding a beautiful love.
The film begins with routines carried out inside a New Orleans hospital while the first winds and water of hurricane Katrina slash at the windows, a framing metaphor for the treachery of existence and the combination of ignorance and nobility that keeps human beings moving in the face of it. Benjamin Button’s story — and her own — emerge from the memento filled suitacase of a dying old woman. A clock is built to run backwards, and the movie pulls out all the stops in turning an old man into a young one.
Queenie, a black maid in an old people’s home, determines to keep the grotesque-looking White baby abandoned on her doorstep, rejecting the cautions of a reasonable, kind doctor that some are not born for existence. The full, worthy life Benjamin goes on the live, albeit backwards, validates her decision. The movie was made to prove Queenie right about individual worth.
In the “brief encounter” love story, the transience of the affair is bound not by train schedules or prior loyalties but by the lovers’ trajectories criss-crossed in time: growing old meets growing young. Still they find a way to make their love permanent as life itself — life, that is, with Katrina at the windows.
From his wizened babyhood, Benjamin adapts to his odd position by being careful not to cause trouble, and by watching others for clues about how to act. A problem with the film is that he maintains his defensive passivity as he grows young. Even as a hale and hearty man in mid-life, he continues to react rather than initiate, which thins the character and narrows what’s asked of Brad Pitt in terms of emotional range. Still, Pitt’s right for the part: for those lacking Queenie’s saintly character, it takes the exceptional charm and tousled-haired good looks of a Brad Pitt to offset unease about a freak of nature, and to make him seem enough of a regular guy that we — and his lover — can warm up to him.
While Benjamin grows young, Cate Blanchett as the volatile Daisy grows older in a subtly developed personal evolution. Taraji P. Henson as Queenie touches the heart with her lightest smile. In this movie of richly developed — richly loved — characters, there are in a sense no small parts. Jared Harris as the tugboat Captain who gives Benjamin a vocation, cluing him in at the local brothel about why a man needs money in his pocket, is particularly vivid.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, is ambitious in taking on existence as its subject, and it’s as engaging, humorous, tragic, sensuous, suspenseful, serious and moving as life itself.