The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an epic, not of scale, but of time. It is the story of an infant born suffering the infirmities of old age who lives his life in reverse, growing younger with each passing year until he dies in infancy. The film is a charmed, enchanted fable steeped in melancholy and wistful serenity. And it is an artistic and narrative triumph, which, while colder and more emotionally remote than necessary, embodies one of the most beautiful love stories set to screen in a very long time. Benjamin Button is not the finest film of the year, but it gets awfully close.
The film is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1921 short story. Screenwriter Eric Roth, the latest in a long line of scribes to take a whack at the material, borrows the famed American author's premise but creates a richer, lusher narrative than the short story could ever convey. Roth sets the film in New Orleans, a city of Old South gentility and infinite color and spice, bookending it between World War I and Hurricane Katrina.
Benjamin (Brad Pitt) loses his mother in childbirth, and his father, a button manufacturer (Jason Flemying) is so horrified by the child's ravaged appearance that he abandons him on the steps of a rest home, where he is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a loving black employee. Queenie raises Benjamin as her own, among the elderly patrons. Even as a toddler, Benjamin fits right instooped, balding, bespeckled, hard of hearing and confined to a wheelchair. The doctor claims Benjamin has one foot in the grave already, but instead of dying, Benjamin grows taller, stronger and younger.
When the pre-pubescent (though he looks like a man in his 70s) Benjamin meets the granddaughter of one of the residents, the red-haired beauty named Daisy, he is instantly smitten. If Daisy minds the attention paid her by the shriveled, little man, she doesn't show it. Perhaps she senses his youthfulness. As the years pass, Benjamin and Daisy retain a special connection. Daisy is Benjamin's only anchor in an ever-changing world viewed in reverse.
As Benjamin, who is beginning to notice changes to his body, grows younger, he begins to sample the delights of the outside world. He takes a job with a hard-drinking Irish tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who introduces his innocent-in-the-ways-of-the-world employee to the pleasures of drink and the flesh. Benjamin's travels take him to Russia, where he has an affair with a British diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton), a relationship from which he learns about both love and lust.
But Benjamin's heart is still with Daisy, now an up-and-coming, headstrong ballet dancer in New York City, whose selfishness, bohemian lifestyle and unabashed sensuality take him aback. No matter how Benjamin pursues his childhood crush, he is rebuffed at every turn. Only after Daisy suffers a terrible tragedy does her perspective realignand does she see Benjamin for the man he really is.
Much of Benjamin Button's allure is its reliance on precise calculations to ensure Benjamin and Daisy come together at just the right time. They can meet in the middle only once. More than just timing, however, Benjamin and Daisy's romance throbs an ephemeral poignancy at once ethereal and tragicphysically, the lovers are headed in opposite directions. As Benjamin grows ever younger, Daisy will become an old woman, and at some point he will catch up to the young daughter their lovemaking produces. The question they are forced to ask is, what form will their love take then?