The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Reviewed by Randy Hoyt
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:2 (#331) in February 2010.]
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the fictional story of a man who ages in reverse. When Benjamin Button is born at the end of the First World War, his body is the size of a baby but has more in common with that of an old man: he has wrinkles, cataracts, and severe arthritis. His mother dies in childbirth; his father, wanting nothing to do with the baby, considers killing him but instead abandons him on the front porch of a seniors’ home. The caregiver living at the home finds him on the front porch and raises him as her own son. The doctor predicts that the baby will not live long, but Benjamin defies the predictions. It soon becomes obvious that his body is getting younger instead of older, which provides an interesting opportunity to depict the symmetry of life: just like a normal child, Benjamin grows hair and teeth, learns to walk and talk, and outgrows his need for diapers. When a new resident moves in to the home, Benjamin meets her visiting granddaughter Daisy. Benjamin and Daisy are roughly the same age at this time, and they become friends—as good of friends as they can be considering that he appears to be in his seventies. Much of the story involves their interactions as they move in and out of each others’ lives over the next sixty to seventy years.
I have always been a fan of narratives that span the full lifetimes of the main characters, or at least a large portion of their lifetimes. These “lifespan stories” provide a much broader perspective that we often fail to appreciate in the midst of our day-to-day activities. Growing up with his curious condition in a seniors’ home, Benjamin seems always to have this broader perspective. The film powerfully explores the nature of life and death, of love and loss, of the tragedy and joy of the human condition. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Benjamin and Daisy both die: it doesn’t take much of the film for you to realize that death—for the characters in the film, just as for all of us in life—is the only way the story can end. Their deaths come after full lives filled with joyous moments and painful heartaches, with difficult choices and enduring memories. A quote from Benjamin in the middle of his life sums up the theme of the film quite nicely: “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” Coming to this realization and then learning to live with it seems to be at the core of the human experience, and encountering reminders like this film can only be a good thing for us.
The more I reflect on the film, the more I see it as a celebration of life. But I should warn that watching the film can be incredibly sorrowful and emotionally draining. I cried during it like I haven’t cried in years, and my wife could not sleep at all the night after we watched it. Everything about this film draws you into the story and the characters’ lives. The acting was superb: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were terrific together in the lead roles. (Pitt was deservedly nominated for the Academy Award for Lead Actor, and I’m still a bit stunned that Blanchett was not nominated for Lead Actress.) The film won three Academy Awards for Makeup, Visual Effects, and Art Direction; the spectacular achievements in all three of these areas contributed to the film’s overall verisimilitude. I have read some reviews claiming that it is too difficult to suspend disbelief and enjoy the film, but this was not at all a problem for me. I easily granted to the story what J.R.R. Tolkien called “Secondary Belief” in “On Fairy-stories.” If anything, the film was too believable: some of what Tolkien said in the same essay about “Faërian drama” can be applied to this film without too much of a stretch:
You yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. [...] [Y]ou are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. [...] [T]he potion is too strong.
The Academy also nominated the film for Best Adapted Screenplay. The screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich) drew on a short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” published by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921. (This story can be found in Fitzgerald’s collection titled Tales of the Jazz Age; it is now in the public domain and can be found easily online.) Fitzgerald’s story starts with the same basic concept as the film—a man named Benjamin Button ages in reverse—but that concept is the only significant similarity. The short story is a satirical critique of high society in Baltimore after the American Civil War; I suppose it’s a decent satire, but it feels quite flippant, trivial, and dated when compared with the powerful and emotional treatment of timeless concerns in the film.
I suspect that the images from this film will remain with me for a long time. My wife and I both started to tear up again watching brief clips of the film during the Academy Awards show. I have no doubt that I will watch this movie many more times, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly … just don’t forget to take your tissues.