The curious case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher (2008).
Score: Heartwarming, at times.
I watched this in the cinema back when it came out in 2008. I was twenty and I didn’t get it. There was a rerun last night on TV and while the movie is not perfect, I appreciated it much more now than back then.
The curious case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man (Brad Pitt) who is born in New Orleans in 1918 with the physiology of an already ailing person. Abandoned by his father (Jason Flemying) at a nursing home, he is adopted by an African-American maid (Taraji P. Henson). As the years pass by and he doesn’t die, people around him realise that he’s just aging backwards. While still a kid (that looks like a very short old man) he meets one of the resident’s granddaughter, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who goes on to become the love of his life.
The movie, especially the first half, explores themes related to life, death, fate and happiness. Benjamin the teenager, looking like a man on the verge of retiring, is introduced into the adult world in extravagant ways. Benjamin lives his life in puzzlement that he’s going backwards from everyone’s point of view, but at the same time he’s faced with the exact same experiences, conundrums, disappointments and joys as everyone else. His relationship with Daisy is gravely affected by his condition, up to a point where they both meet in the middle of their lives, a precious short period of time where their different life experiences have drawn them together. Then they are drawn apart again by age.
The first half of the movie is written in a very sensitive way and can be quite moving and heartwarming. I feel the biggest flaw in the plot comes when Benjamin reaches his middle age. As a writer, it’s very convenient to have your main character inherit some means of life, so they don’t have to worry about money. Daisy, in contrast, is given a career as a dancer, ambitions and some development. Benjamin is given nothing like that. After his biological father dies he inherits a prosperous button factory, a mansion near a lake and a boat. And the only thing he’s shown doing is sailing and chilling next to the lake. Sometimes doing some chores in the retirement home but not that much. Some shots from this part of the movie look like Burberry ads. I’m not saying Brad Pitt needed to be uglified, or that he wasn’t right for the part. It’s just that all this bourgeois decadence collides with the vitalistic tone of the first half of the movie and kind of kills the mood. It gets better once he gets rid of the mansion and everything, but by then the mood is quite dead. Giving him a career or any interests beyond sailing, biking and looking incredibly hot would have made a more rounded-up character. Like, you know, your protagonist that has had so many enriching experiences due to his exceptional condition. You get the weird feeling that Daisy loves him now for the sole reason that he’s now handsome and rich (and he doesn’t look like a grandpa anymore). Daisy’s characterisation tells us this is not the case, so the flaw is in Benjamin’s.
Daisy’s character development feels quite better. She’s whimsical and bratty as a young woman, she’s given a career, goals and a personality, and a personal tragedy. As she grows older, she finds it’s the right time of her life to have a relationship with Benjamin, and shows real commitment to having a child with him, while at the same time is conflicted with her own aging. Even though it’s hard for her, she accepts that Benjamin needs to leave as he grows younger and younger, and keeps her promise to take care of him when his health is deteriorating. The last scenes where she’s old and he’s turning into a baby while she keeps caring for him even through his senility are heartbreaking (I’m not crying, you’re crying!). Benjamin, again, gets nothing like that. He’s developed as an old child, as a young man who falls in love for the first time with a married woman, as a sailor, but then there is a big blank where his only development is trying to romance Daisy and getting rejected. Then you get something again when he realises he can’t stay around and allow Daisy to bring up both him and their daughter. It’s kind of frustrating because it really wouldn’t need more runtime, just to have written the middle of the film differently.
All in all, these plot flaws don’t really prevent you from enjoying the film. It’s quite well-made and the visual effects have aged okay. Worth watching and rewatching when there’s a rerun on TV and it’s raining outside.