The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

 Life is like a box of wrinkles

There’s a genre of film that centers around an outsider for whom the normal rules don’t apply. They’re different, and perhaps a little disconnected. We follow them through many stages of their life, which features wild twists and turns. Love is found and lost, war breaks out, a family reunited. Throughout it all, the wonderful gift or curse this person has pulls them through in a special way. Let’s call this genre ‘Forrest Gump’.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a Forrest Gump. That’s not an unfair comparison:  both screenplays were penned by Eric Roth. It shares the same sense of open-eyed wonder at the world as the 1994 movie with Tom Hanks. Forrest and Benjamin each have a grave disability, the former in his mind, the latter in his body. You see, Benjamin is born as an old man and grows younger as the years go by. The year of his birth is 1918, Armistice Day. His biological father is so appalled at the sight of the hideously wrinkled baby, he rushes him to the river for a quick end. Events run differently, thankfully, and Benjamin ends up at the doorstep of a senior nursery home. He’s taken in by a kind, black woman and raised as part of the family. He spends the first twenty years of his life as an arthritic man, barely able to walk. But old age isn’t so bad, he says later on. Especially not if you’re taken such loving care of.

Another Gumpian turn comes when Benjamin meets Daisy, a girl about his age. Aging normally, of course, but mentally his peer. It doesn’t take long before he learns how his disability is a hindrance. When they crawl under the table in the middle of the night, Daisy’s grandmother doesn’t understand he’s just a twelve-year-old and sees only an old pervert. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she scolds him. It marks a lifelong love for Daisy, a relationship to which they both now rush, then flee. Benjamin is a simple Southerner, whereas Daisy dives into the sophisticated world of New York ballet. They are in both culture and time hopelessly out of sync.

The way their lives continue to intersect is the subject of this three hour saga, that hobbles on and takes its time to show how Benjamin joins a tugboat, ends up in Russia and gets younger every year. It’s a bizarre idea. A baby born old might not be so unfathomable, but how will this end? When Benjamin’s life comes to a close, does he get smaller until he’s a baby again, and then dissipate into a sperm and an egg? Upon reflection, it might not be that much of a blessing at all. The final stages of Benjamin’s life won’t be that different from anyone else’s – from the loss of faculties to increasing dependence on care. Halting the aging process is a universal obsession, but its reversal comes at a cost, this movie warns us.

There’s a lot of visual trickery on display. For the first hour or so, Benjamin is a computer-generated presence. Well-done, if noticeable and kind of creepy at times. It’s more than a bit ‘Gollum’, to be fair. Far more impressive are the ways the movie manages to make Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt look like twenty-somethings in their respective youth and latter days. There’s not a hint of movie magic here, just the taut skin and pristine complexion of youth. An amazing accomplishment.

As is the case without exception, director David Fincher never bores. He tackles one genre after the other, switching styles at whim, but always fascinates. Benjamin Button isn’t his best (I prefer the likes of Se7en, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but a worthy addition to his oeuvre.

The film leaves it up to the viewer to distill their own lesson from it in the end, without offering much in terms of a point. In fact, even the characters themselves are grappling to understand what it all means. The closest Benjamin comes is quoting the words of his Irish tugboat captain: “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” That’s a lesson of acceptation that surely didn’t need a story about a man growing backwards? I chose to see it as a warning against fearing old age, and give this film seven out of ten Forrest Gumps.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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