I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button weeks ago, and yet every time I tried to think about it -- whether it was to contemplate a decision in David Fincher's direction, a deviation from F. Scott Fitzgerald's story, a moment in Eric Roth's script or a note in the performances of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett -- I would soon find myself, invariably, distracted from the large-scale visions and moments of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and instead contemplating the smaller-scale moments of my own life. This was at best annoying; what did it say about the film that I couldn't hold it in my attention? What did it say about my attention that I couldn't even focus it on a film? But Zen gives us the parable of the master who points to the moon, and the student who looks at the master's finger. Fincher, Roth, Pitt and Blanchett have all, in their way, made a film of true sincerity and (ironically enough in light of its technical achievements) real simplicity; resting your gaze on the film, without directing it onto the things it encourages you to look at, seems like staring at the pointing finger.
Fitzgerald's tale is a brief fantasia, the story of Benjamin Button, a man who, born old, ages backward; at the same time, the slenderest books often become the best films, the lush drapery of moviemaking lending their slight grace weight, the stark simplicity of the plot a place for a director's vision to find purchase and grow. Within moments -- as an old woman lies dying in a modern New Orleans hospital, slate-gray rain battering the windows, her daughter (Julia Ormond) paging through her diaries and scrapbooks as the old woman fades in and out of consciousness, flickering between past memory and present reality -- we know we're not in the world established in Fitzgerald's 1922 short story. The woman's diaries are not just hers, and as the daughter reads, we learn about the birth and exile of Benjamin Button, born old in New Orleans in 1918 just after the Great War. ... Benjamin is abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng), left on the steps of an old folk's home; Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) takes him in, as her own. Benjamin grows into a bizarrely wizened body, but does not want for love; he fits in with the home's elderly residents, but his restless mind and spirit make his circumstances a cage. He wants to play, to learn; his body betrays him, until, as time passes, it does not. Much has been made of the technical tricks brought to bear to turn Brad Pitt into a shrunken old man -- with some suggesting that the trickery seems more important to Fincher than the task of building Benjamin as a real, emotional character -- but it should be said that while the special effects tricks are impressive, they would also be meaningless without an actual performance under them, which Pitt provides even burdened with makeup and pixels.
It has also been said that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is 'cold,' a charge I categorically reject; the tone and restraint that these detractors fault is one of the best things about the film. (In fact, I found the film's most overt device -- a signifying hummingbird who pops up as needed like busy, buzzy punctuation -- so 'warm' as to be molten and shapeless.) Benjamin Button is being called 'cold' but, really, what that means is that it does not leap into your lap like an untrained puppy and squirm around begging you to love it. If you would like to see a film that isn't 'cold,' rent Million Dollar Baby, with its comical White trash stereotypes and foolish contrivances and the one-two punch of Morgan Freeman's narration and a droning, mournful saxophone telling you exactly how you should feel at any given moment on the off chance you were not sure. I tend to prefer a movie that treats me as if I am a grownup, and found that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was content for the most part to let me think and feel for myself, even with its plucky hummingbird and a moment that pretty much looks like the propaganda films we will be forced to watch after Ralph Lauren seizes power where our casually well-dressed lovers take out their sailboat and witness a NASA rocket steaming overhead.
Old Benjamin becomes friends with young Daisy (Elle Fanning) and then younger Benjamin meets the older Daisy (Blanchett) and, for a time, they're lovers. And while Benjamin's life is improbable, it seems no more improbable than love; for all of the sum-it-up-in-a-sentence strangeness of the story's central idea, Benjamin's backwards life is entirely like our own. He's born defenseless, grows to need help and guidance, has a few years of vitality that are soon tempered by the sense of time drawing to an end, falls into helplessness and childlike confusion. It's not so far from what we get, if we're lucky. As Queenie notes, we're all going the same place; " ... we just take different paths to get there." Others have found Pitt's Button to be 'passive,' but I think its simply that he's ordinary -- he's not possessed of any special wisdom or Gump-esque insight; on occasion he's selfish and he's sad, and at other times he's generous and glad. The fact Pitt doesn't over-play the part should tell you how good he is. Blanchett -- dancing in moonlight mist as a young girl, pain-wracked and still on her deathbed -- has a similarly sweeping part, but never pushes the drama into melodrama.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is less concerned with flights of fancy than the real pleasures of this mortal coil; a soft kiss, a stiff drink, a good friend, a sympathetic ear. And it knows the things that surround and confound us; the horrors of war, the dimming of love, the loss of those around us, the way the unstoppable circuit of the second hand sweeps everything in its path to the trash heap or the grave. Life gives us things; life takes things. And so it goes. Fincher's direction has a sense of warmth and play here that his other films have sorely lacked; as one of Benjamin's fellow rest home residents says throughout the film, "Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning seven times?" -- and we glimpse each incident as he recounts the specifics -- you realize that other Fincher films have had running cops and running killers, but rarely running jokes (even if Fight Club is perversely hilarious) and they have never been this human, this warm.
Mark Twain said that he left home at 18 because his father was a fool, and that when he returned at 25, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned while he was away; watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the far edge of my 30's, I appreciated, enjoyed and admired it, and I can't wait to see what it has to tell me (if I'm lucky, as it also points out) 10, 20, 30 years down the line. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't about a man who lives backwards or a woman who lives forwards; that's just looking at the finger. Get past the plot, the pitch, and the technique, and you can see it as a reminder that all we can do is live now.