Youth, it is often said, is wasted on the young. On the evidence offered by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it is wasted on the old as well. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born old, a decrepit infant, seemingly days from the grave. Abandoned by his father at birth, the old child grows, in ways curiouser and curiouser, into a strapping young man. Sadly, for Benjamin, everyone around him is in lockstep with the normal march of time, growing older and decaying while he grows younger and more beautiful.
This odd film is very loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but in the hands of filmmaker David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth, it grows into a wistful contemplation of love and loss, birth and death, youth and old age, memory and identity, and fate.
Benjamin's unfortunate birth is followed by a fortunate twist of fate -- he is found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the kindly, patient caretaker of a nursing home. With no children of her own, Queenie raises Benjamin as her son, and he lives, and grows up (or down) in the company of senescent old folks who come for a time and then go quietly into that good night. The old man, born to die, is instead born to live among the dying (but aren't we all?). His only childhood friend is also his soulmate, a girl named Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett) whom he meets again in the middle of their lives, as she is growing beautifully old, and he is growing beautifully young. The story of Daisy and Benjamin is recounted in his diary, and is read by Daisy's daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) as the aged mother lays dying in a hospital. That the hospital is in New Orleans, and that Hurricane Katrina is bearing down on it, is an unnecessary distraction from the core story. Yes, time, like a hurricane, is inexorable and deadly, but that point is made with more subtlety throughout The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and without the blunt intrusion of the inevitable thoughts about what happened to all the poor souls trapped in hospitals when the levees broke.
But back to Benjamin. The story follows, for the most part, his backwards lifeline. There are adventures at sea with a tugboat crew. War, love affairs, caviar and vodka. As a result of his curious condition, Benjamin meets many people on the verge of death, and is the recipient of many pithy pearls of expirational (if not inspirational) wisdom. It's a long and colorful life, spanning most of the 20th century, and filled with loquacious Irish sea captains, prostitutes, pygmies, hummingbirds, long distance swimmers, and beautiful dancers. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is charmingly whimsical at times, and frequently warm, sweet, and unexpectedly funny. And remarkably, despite a premise that strains credulity, it is a plausible love story.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a showcase for digital effects -- how else to transform Brad Pitt from wrinkled young codger to youthful old man? The inner and outer lives of Benjamin Button are forever (and tragically) out of synch, and this cinematic feat is accomplished, in part, by exquisite digital effects that capture the boyish essence of Pitt within a decrepit little body. Later, Benjamin is transformed, once again, into the boyishly handsome Pitt of *Thelma and Louise* (1991), and the strikingly pretty man he is now. Pitt's approach to his role is somewhat passive (and only rarely reminiscent of his paint-dryingly dull character in *Meet Joe Black*), which makes Benjamin a little inert, and a bit of a cypher, adrift in his own life. The real fire and spark in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes from Blanchett, who is, pound for pound, every bit as beautiful as her co-star, but also a more lively and daring actor. Youth is not wasted on the young Daisy, a spitfire, an elegantly long-limbed dancer, a woman of intense and unapologetic appetites.
Fincher is best known for thrillers (Fight Club, Zodiac, Seven), and movies about serial killers. He is an immensely talented and interesting filmmaker who cannot be accused of anything like sentimentality, although he is far from dispassionate. That intelligent and cool passion serves this movie very well, and restrains any potential mawkishness. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is moving and provocative without being weepy or maudlin. It looks, in a clear-eyed way, at the inextricable entwining of love and loss -- it is tender and romantic without being drippy and cloying. I suppose Fincher takes on the ultimate serial killer in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- that'd be death itself, in all its various guises and modus operandi, but especially in the quiet solitude in which most of us will meet our unmaker.