Happily ensconced in the magical, mystical, love- and life-affirming world of Benjamin Button, you won’t want director David Fincher’s film to end. Even after two hours and thirty-nine minutes, when the tub of popcorn is depleted, the box of Goobers a memory and nary a drop is left in the second, giant diet Coke refill, the fantasy is still enchanting.
Very loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord’s adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is gloriously viewer-friendly. Each chapter better than the last, practically every performance is a gem. Doubtless the title will be repeated ad nauseam at the Oscar ceremonies Feb. 22.
And yet for all its momentous wonders, there is a warm simplicity in its epochal celebration of the life experience…not too unlike that found in the filmmaker’s “Forrest Gump” (1994). There is the beauty of each breath, a reminder of this lucky gift that otherwise flummoxes us, told from the vantage point of the oddest metaphor.
In New Orleans in 1918, shortly after a clockmaker completes the piece de resistance that will adorn the train station atrium, Benjamin Button is born. The clock’s second hand runs backward for a hopeful reason and, as it just so happens, Benjamin arrives old. While baby-sized, he appears near death. But Mom beats him to that destiny.
The newborn’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur in shock at the loss of his life’s love and horrified by what he figures is a monster, first runs to dump it in the river. But deterred by circumstances and fate, he plops the tiny oldster down on random steps and tucks eighteen dollars in its swaddling cloth. It turns out they are the steps of an old age home.
Shades of Biblical import, the babe is discovered by the home’s barren proprietor, Queenie, played with loving care by Taraji P. Henson. Naturally, she adopts the little old Moses, and he soon grows into the cozy society that therein cossets and makes him its mascot. Strange though, unlike his compatriots, it appears he gets younger with each day.
The unorthodox environment, full of its own mores and folkways, makes for the sort of sweet, experimental upbringing literature is so fond of hypothesizing. As in “The Cider House Rules” (1999), it’s a test tube where morality and a whimsical pragmatism are taught. Here, where love holds an honored place, it is assured that dying is a part of life.
And, because tolerance and the unexplained are all a very welcome share of the trappings, little fuss is made of the reverse path in life Benjamin seems to be taking. He makes friends. And in time, when he is of age and we begin to recognize the remarkably handsome Brad Pitt who plays him, he goes out into the world and discovers women.
But just before that rite of passage, the steadily de-maturing Benjamin hooks up with the salty, perennially drunk Captain Mike (Jared Harris). Aboard the skipper’s tugboat, he acquits himself with distinction. When work takes them to Russia, he meets Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth Abbott, a British diplomat’s lonely wife.
In the big hotel, late at night, the expansive lobby accentuates their solitude, as if to justify the charmingly played courtship that leads to their illicit assignations. Mrs. Abbott doesn’t know it, but she’s ostensibly the older woman who introduces Benjamin to the ways of the world.
Alas, WWII approaches. Captain Mike, informing that the U.S. Navy is requisitioning his tug, asks who among his crew wishes to join in the conflict. Aye, aye, indicates Benjamin, and soon we are swept up in the adventure. Meanwhile, stateside, the script prepares for the next episode in the title character’s odyssey. Daisy is reintroduced.
She was but a girl when her grandmother first brought her to the old age home and “elderly” Benjamin became her playmate. Then life parted them, their only connecting link the gazetteer of postcards he promised to regularly send. Daisy, marvelously played by Cate Blanchett, has since followed her bliss and become a ballet dancer in New York.
When they meet again, she is a vibrant participant in the city’s emerging, postwar, Bohemian culture. She has also acquired a beau or two. To tell more about the reconnection would be a misprision on the critic’s part. Suffice it to note their relationship forms the romantic core of the plot. Dual nominations may be in order.
Pity there’s no Oscar for best use of a gimmick. If the qualification were that the ploy must be fascinating while enhancing— rather than overshadowing— the film’s message, the reverse-age thing would be a shoo-in. Artfully shuffling time and perspective, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” leaves little doubt as to what’s really important in life.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by David Fincher and stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. Running time: 159 minutes