Sunday, September 28, 2014

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

                                    

This article by Vol-E was originally published elsewhere.
~
"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."  

"You never know what's coming for you." 

If these lines sound like something Forrest Gump might have said, it's probably because Eric Roth, screenwriter for the 1993 film that won Tom Hanks an Oscar, is also responsible for this acclaimed 2008 motion picture about a reject who manages to live a life of significance. 

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes us from birth to death and beyond, and invites us to reconsider how we define those terms. 

Benjamin (played by Brad Pitt) begins life with the outward features of a very old man and dies, many decades later, as an infant in the arms of the only woman he ever really loved.  In between these two points, he experiences the same type of life as anyone else.  He learns how to walk, how to work, how to get along with others, and how to care for loved ones.  His life reflects the irony that confronts each of us, sooner or later:  By the time we have enough wisdom in our hearts and minds, our bodies have lost the power to help us use it.   

Bracketing the Button biography (told via a diary and flashbacks) is the present-day circumstance of a very old woman facing her last hours in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina is bearing down. The patient's name is Daisy and her caregiver is Caroline, her daughter.   

We know that Caroline's father is no longer living, but that as far as she is concerned, Benjamin Button is a stranger she never met.  He is someone from her mother's distant past.  But we also know that Caroline knows little about her mother's life before she was born.  She is shocked to learn that her mother was an aspiring professional ballerina.   

Caroline learns for the first time that Daisy had a grandmother who lived in a pleasant convalescent home in New Orleans in the years before World War II, and that Daisy's best friend there was a funny little old man with the innocence and curiosity of a child.  However, it seems that only Daisy fully realizes this about Benjamin.  Her grandmother sees only a strange old man who whispers secrets to her granddaughter, under a bed, with only a candle's illumination. 

Caroline learns that Benjamin eventually left New Orleans and went to sea as a crew member on a tugboat.  While the tugboat captain has his doubts about how much work a frail old character like Benjamin could do, he eventually comes to reconsider his assumptions.  At one point, he questions his own perceptions:  "Either I've been drinking too much, or you've sprouted," he observes to Benjamin, who turns away to hide a smile and replies,  "Well, Captain, you do drink a lot..." 

As the story unfolds, we see Benjamin walking, growing hair on his head ("and other places"), and meeting more and more women who find him attractive and sympathetic.  But his travels bring him back again and again to New Orleans, and Daisy comes back, too.  At the beginning of their relationship, they are an old man and a young girl.  By the ending credits, their roles have reversed, and their sweetest memories are now in the past: The memories of their years together, when both were in their 40s.  

The story is a sad one, but hopeful for the audience.  As Benjamin reminds us, it's never too late for anyone ... or too early.