Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Director David Fincher tells tale of man who ages in reverse

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Brad Pitt, above, depicts Benjamin Button early in his curious life.

By Anne Kirby
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is an unusually engaging film that tells the captivating, stranger-than-life story of the fictional Benjamin Button.

The film depicts the peculiarities of Benjamin's life as he ages backward from old age, into middle age, adolescence, youth and infancy.

According to Benjamin this turn of events is attributed to the fact that he was "born under unusual circumstances."

The film's story begins with Benjamin Button's birth on Armistice Day in 1918, the day on which World War I ended.

When he arrives in this world, Benjamin looks every bit like a seasoned senior citizen in an infantile body. The doctors diagnose Benjamin with an odd aging disease that they believes will be quickly fatal.

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Thanks to the expansive and imaginative vision of the film's director, David Fincher, who has a penchant for manufacturing beauty in his films, "The Curious Life of Benjamin Button" does not dwell on the gorier aspects of Benjamin's odd appearance the way that author F. Scott Fitzgerald did in the original story that was adapted by Fincher

Instead, when we first meet Benjamin Button (played mostly by Brad Pitt, right) lying in a blanket on the doorstep of the home where he his impulsive and wealthy button-making father abandoned him, Fincher handles Benjamin's physical appearance deftly.

To his and the film's credit, Fincher honors Benjamin's humanity. With pleasing sensorial treatment, Fincher reveals Benjamin's face as no more frightening than a large grapefruit with two eyes, a nose, and mouth. Ensconced within folded layers of white skin, they sensuously resemble a range of small and rolling mountains.

Again Benjamin's appearance is reinforced when Queenie, Benjamin's adoptive and adoring, black mother, discovers him. Looking sympathetically at Benjamin, she views him with a loving light and expresses her sorrow solely on the grounds that Benjamin was born a white child! The film is filled with backward metaphors like this one that are subtle and telling.

Benjamin's backward life literally unfolds on screen through Fincher's expertise.   Like an old film that's gone through a digital face lift, the earlier scenes of Benjamin are sensorial and full of color that is ever so slightly blurred to portray a pre-World War II New Orleans that bustles with electric street cars, old-fashioned telephone poles, and men who wear fedora hats as they stroll the wide avenues that are graced with large wooden-shingle homes such as the one where Benjamin was reared.

Benjamin Button is not dying, but growing younger

As Ben ages, the film's colors become clearer as does Benjamin who discovers that he is not dying. He instead grows  younger and younger through the same unstoppable time that traps all other mortals who age and conversely become older. Such a paradoxical presentation of aging fills the film with the unexpected and uplifting  scent of flowers that grow and blossom like Benjamin who sheds his wilted body to become younger.

Growing up, Ben is confined and protected from the outside world by his mother, and together they live in the retirement home where she works. Ben is dearly loved by Queenie, who accepts his predicament without judgement. The older, less-than-retiring residents view him as one of themselves and they are stimulated by his youthful innocence and curiosity.  They too nurture Benjamin sharing their experiences, talents and most importantly their love.

At night, Ben is read the Rudyard Kipling Just So Stories by an older lady, who delights in revealing Kipling's  jungle animals personified with human characteristics. Another resident teaches Ben to play the piano, dance and appreciate music.

And throughout the film, laughter explodes from the audience with Kincher's comical tintertype inserts depicting "Chaplinesque" pictures of an older man in the process of being struck by lightning.

Each picture presents a differing scenario that represents the  confusion of the older man who typically responds to inquiries about his health with the repetitive statement ‘Did I ever tell you that I was struck by lightning seven times in my lifetime?'  He then goes on to present a different strory which mirrors his aging memory.

Despite title, a film for adults
The title of the film is alluring in that it sounds very much like a children's film. Surprisingly it is not. In fact the film's director, David Fincher, adapted it from the short story - of the same name - that was written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1920s. The story was later anthologized within a collection of Fitzgerald's other short stories. All were intended to be read by an adult audience.
There are no magical kingdoms or fantastical characters in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - no Mad Hatter, Tin Man nor Wizard of Oz. Not even a vampire. But there is Benjamin Button and the disturbing circumstances under which he was born that ripened and shaped Benjamin Button into one plum of a character.

This is quintessential child's play. Through elderly mimicry Kincher adds humorous touches that serve as mild hints  about Benjamin's life.  In so doing he makes the story funny and the film pleasing to watch.

In time Ben meets a beautiful young girl named Daisy. The two take to each other and immediately become close friends. Daisy's stern grandmother who lives in the old white house looks unfavorably upon the relationship between her young granddaughter and the older Benjamin. She spares no time in telling Benjamin that he should be ashamed for playing like a child under neath the hand-made table tent he and Daisy created together.

Daisy, however, perceptively sees beyond  the veneer of Benjamin's age.

Over time, her dedication pays off as Benjamin blooms into the glowing prince of a figure played elegantly by Brad Pitt. Daisy, too, grows up into the lovely ballerina and woman who is  played by the beautiful and very talented Cate Blanchett.

The two never lose touch with one another.  Through a sort of cross-pollination of aging they simultaneously reach the same place in life generationally. Together they fall madly in love and romantically they have a child.

This part of the 2-hour, 40-minute film is as crucial as it is mysterious.  Bringing  an emotional complexity to the film, it reflcts the director's brilliance and talent as he presents and defines the plot's rising action in a manner that keeps us on edge, wondering what will happen next.

But there's more. The film begins and ends with an older woman named Daisy. While lying in a hospital bed, dying as Hurricane Katrina picks up outside her New Orleans window,  Daisy asks her daughter, Caroline to read to her.  She directs Caroline to the diary of Benjamin Button that is packed tightly within her suitcase of pictures and erstwhile momentos.

As Caroline begins reading she becomes the narrator of the film through the memoirs of Benjamin Button. The story is revealed through her as she goes backwards in time to discover something about her own life -- so unbeleivable -- she would never have suspected it on her own.

The message behind Benjamin Button is presented like the genie in the bottle. One rubs hard beneath the film's surface to discover it.

Somewhat like the character of E.T., Benjamin Button reminds us that it does not matter how you look or whether or not you are born lucky.

What does matter is that you are loved and accepted. As in the stroy of Benjamin Button, this is what creates a curious and substantial  life and one that is truly lived from the inside out.

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Benjamin Button, played by Brad Pitt, makes love to Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett, at a moment where their ages coincide.

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