Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Old age, Mr. Bernstein said in Citizen Kane, is the only disease you don't look forward to being cured of. Not so Benjamin Button, who was born an old man and got younger each day for the rest of his long life. As the hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story, he was a comic-pathetic figure whose reverse internal clock sets him up for a string of triumphs and gaffes. In the sprawling, enthralling, generous and quite serious film version directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac), Benjamin's birth year is moved from 1860 to 1918; instead of fighting in the Spanish-American War, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) sees action in World War II. The movie also gives him something Fitzgerald left out. Benjamin's life is defined by one grand passion, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whom he meets when they're both children, so to speak, and pursues as their lives spin in opposite directions.

Set mostly in New Orleans, the film begins in 2005, with the 82-year-old Daisy on her deathbed, and ends about a decade earlier, with Benjamin at the end of his life, reaching his long-anticipated "birth" in a loving woman's arms. In between is a true epic — not the cast-of-thousands movie but the panoramic telling of one man's life. It's a daring, necessarily episodic endeavor, that Fincher and his team bring to spectacular and intimate life. The film says, among many other things, that we are the parents and children of our lovers; and that the ticking of the meter on our taxi ride through life is worth attending to. Most of us lumber along without obsessing about advancing age. But Benjamin, whose clock runs backward, has a window that is perpetually open onto our common mortality.

When he is born, Benjamin is a wrinkled thing with cataracts, arthritis and a murderer's curse on his head; his mother died giving birth to him. His father (Jason Flemyng), turning his despondency to fury, stuffs $18 in the swaddling and leaves the baby on the steps of an old folks' home, where he is adopted by a black maid, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who cradles him with a mother's love. In this nursery for the aged, death is the biggest part of life; that suits Benjamin, who was born with an old man's wisdom — the knowledge that every story has a beginning and an end, even if they run in opposite directions.

"I always had a healthy curiosity," Benjamin says in the diary read to the elderly Daisy by their daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), "what was up the street, or around the next corner." He is a fellow of sweet disposition who mostly goes where chance propels him — on a tugboat to Russia, for example, where he goes to war and enjoys a touching tryst with a lonely woman (Tilda Swinton) who introduces him to caviar, good vodka, and other nighttime delicacies. She also counsels patience. "Don't eat it all at once," she says, as he takes his first bite of the fish eggs, "because that way there's nothing left to enjoy." The movie comes with a similar advisory. Don't look anxiously for the big revelation. This film's manifold pleasures come in a series of small packages, with treats inside as tasty as they are unexpected.

A novelist or bedtime storyteller can make an anecdotal detour that, surprise, leads back to the main narrative path. Movies rarely allow themselves this indulgence, so determined are they to keep the eye of even the laziest viewer on the big prize of a wow climax. But Benjamin's biography, whose premise instantly foretells its conclusion, is about the journey, not the destination. So it can stop to relate and envision other tales: of the blind clockmaker whose masterpiece, hung in the New Orleans train station, runs backward; of a woman's attempt to swim the English Channel; of the tiny incidents in half a dozen lives that lead to a car collision; and of a man who says he was struck by lightning seven times in his life (we get flashes of each event). Francois Truffaut's films, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, insinuated these anecdotal epiphanies to acknowledge a world outside the frame. Benjamin Button is one of the few American films that give a glimpse of all the lives that graze and alter ours.

In the large cast of characters whose stories run off on Benjamin's — pygmies and sea captains, the old lady who sings opera and the black workingman who spouts Shakespeare — the constants are his reluctant father and the mother-figure Queenie (enacted by Flemyng and Henson with a lovely precision and longing). And of course Daisy, a pretty, pampered child who for decades doesn't see what Benjamin does: that they are destined to be each other's great love. Like Benjamin's father, she at first puts her interests ahead of his; Daisy chases a career as a ballerina and ignores the gentility of that funny old-young man. But as their ages begin to coincide, and his goodness becomes more apparent, Daisy gets it. Their time as lovers is the film's most ecstatic passage, to which Blanchett (who played Pitt's wife, under more trying circumstances, in Babel) lends all her intelligent warmth. Daisy finally realizes, as we should, that to share Benjamin's life is to be lucky, fulfilled, blessed.

In a movie without villains, Benjamin is the hero by virtue of his sustained innocence and openness to other points of view. Movie-star roles usually emphasize action, not passivity, and Pitt's triumph is that of watchfulness, curiosity and courtesy; he's an old-fashioned gallant. It's a delight to see the slow pleasure he puts into telling a stranger, "I'm a tugboat man"; and his knowing smile when saying, "You're only young once"; and his tenderness in a simple "Good night," which, when spoken to a married woman outside her hotel bedroom, means the forbidden phrase "I love you." Later his shared good-nights with Daisy will provide the film's emotional release.

Eric Roth, author of the adaptation (with Robin Swicord) and the final screenplay of Benjamin Button, also wrote the Forrest Gump movie, another story of an unusual innocent, which leaned as heavily on computer effects as this one. (At the extremes of his life Benjamin is played by children, or with Pitt's face miraculously superimposed on other actors' bodies.) But here the CGI magic and the artful makeup elegantly serve the poignant fantasy of a displaced soul who knows that the very young and the very old are similarly dependent, and everything in between is a precious gift. So is this wonderful movie.