During the course of that inevitable march toward the grave, who among us has not, at one time, wished to grow young instead of old? “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” currently in theatres, explores this theme. Loosely based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the movie introduces us to a man who ages backwards; born with the body of an old man, Benjamin’s body gets younger as he ages. This curious phenomenon makes us ponder life, death, aging, love, and fate, as his life unfolds.
Abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng), after his mother dies in childbirth, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, under lots of makeup in most scenes) is raised by an African-American couple (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) who run an old age home in New Orleans. Everyone seems to mistake him for an old man, yet he befriends Daisy (eventually played by Cate Blanchett) the granddaughter of a resident. Over the course of their lives, they meet and part many times. It is an extremely unique romance; when they are both middle-aged, they are great together. But when Benjamin appears old and Daisy is young, and when he appears young and she is old, it is much more difficult for them to connect.
Benjamin spends much of his life traveling all over the world. In his late teens he signs on as a crew member aboard a tugboat. It sails around the world and eventually finds itself working a Russian port. There he meets a woman (Tilda Swinton) who asks him if he isn’t too old to work on a tugboat. Benjamin replies that there’s no age requirement, as long as you’re able to do the work.
During World War II, the tugboat is pressed into service in the US Navy and Benjamin barely survives a frightening naval battle. Later he travels to New York and then Paris to meet up with Daisy. Even later in life, with the body of a 20-year-old but the mind of a 60-year-old, he sets off backpacking through Europe and Asia. He’s out to prove that you’re never too young or too old to do what you want to do.
Yet despite all the world travels, home is always New Orleans and the city is very much a part of this film. There are great depictions of old, pre-Katrina New Orleans with streetcars rattling through, and some interesting shots of the train station with its backwards-moving clock. And, believe it or not, Hurricane Katrina herself plays a major role in the film, which opens in a hospital room in August 2005, just before the hurricane hits. Benjamin’s story is told by a dying woman clinging to a city that is about to be wiped out. The final shot of the film, tying Katrina to Benjamin, is very powerful.
Brad Pitt’s acting is really excellent as he convinces us that he is both much older and much younger than he really is. And the effects, combining digital technology with advanced makeup technique, are quite believable. But in the end, this isn’t an effects film. It’s a meditation on life and death. And aging. It’s quite interesting to compare the similarities between old age and infancy, growing up and growing down. After all, just how different is it, really, to age backwards rather than forwards? You get stronger until you reach middle age and then you get weaker. But regardless of which way you age, it seems that everyone you know eventually dies; and so will you.
Which brings us to the role that fate plays in the film. Benjamin makes it clear that every one of us has our own peculiar fate. We’re all here for such a brief time, and we all have the same destination, yet each of us has our own unique road to that final end. There’s an interesting scene in the film where Benjamin explains a complex sequence leading up to a debilitating accident; if any one of several dozen minor events had not occurred, the accident could have been avoided. Yet it was fated. Whether by design or random chance. The same could be said for Benjamin’s curious condition. Or the strange path that every one of us is compelled to take.
The movie, at two-hours-and-48-minutes, is a bit long. In fact it takes longer to watch than to read the original Fitzgerald short story. But the slow progression of the film is beautiful to witness, and leads, eventually, to a more profound understanding of the nature of time and of life. Plato said that the unexamined life was not worth living; Benjamin Button’s was certainly worth living.