I walked into The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a skeptic.
I walked out a believer.
While I make a point of reading as little as possible about a movie before I see it (except for possibly reading the novel on which it is based, which I didn't do in this case), what I had absorbed about Benjamin Button was not encouraging. That's because the comparisons I saw inevitably referenced Forrest Gump, which ranks in the top 5 of least-deserving best-picture Oscar-winners of all time.
So the good news is that, aside from offering seamless visual effects, David Fincher's new film is nothing like Forrest Gump. It is at once enchanting and emotional, sweeping and intimate. It never hammers its gimmick but utilizes it to give depth to the feelings it evokes, as it weaves its magic across the decades.
Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was originally set in late 19th-early 20th-century Baltimore, Benjamin Button has been transposed to 20th century New Orleans, beginning at the end of World War I and moving all the way to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Katrina even plays a role, a fact that has bothered some critics but which seems the perfect metaphor for the death of a way of life.
Katrina is the backdrop for the story's bracketing construct: A young woman (Julia Ormond) sits at the bedside of her elderly, dying mother (Cate Blanchett) in a hospital, as Katrina approaches. Going through her mother's few belongings, she uncovers a diary - the story of Benjamin Button as told by Benjamin himself. Her voice reading the story gives way to his, telling it.
The premise is simple but magical: A son is born to a wealthy button-maker named Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) on the day the war ends. But the birth kills his wife - and the baby is a monstrosity, a tiny baby version of a super-annuated little old man.
Button abandons the baby on the steps of a local nursing home, where he is adopted by the residence's live-in attendant, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). She brings him up and, eventually, realizes that, the longer he is on Earth, the younger he becomes.
By the time he leaves home to crew on a tugboat skippered by the salty Captain Mike (Jared Harris), he still looks like a 65-year-old man. And he has already met the love of his life: Daisy (Blanchett), the granddaughter of one of the residents of the old-age home. They meet as children and again as adolescents - but they truly see each other for the first time when Benjamin comes home in his 20s, after a stint working for Captain Mike in Russia and then fighting by his side against a Nazi submarine.
The events of the film - Benjamin's reunion with his father, his on-again, off-again affair with Daisy, their eventual decision to part when it becomes clear that he's becoming too young to remain her romantic partner - are less consuming than the way they are strung together. This is one of those movies where the journey, not the destination, is the point: the idea that we reach critical moments in life unexpectedly (a fact made physical by a recurring character who recounts all the times he was struck by lightning, one after the other).
Fincher assembles this like a mosaic, one made of individually fascinating pieces that comprise one larger, more encompassing picture. The emotion accrues slowly - the way experience deepens us as we move through life - until we are caught up in it. The comparison is to the grain of sand in the oyster; what you have, by the end, is the pearl that is this film.
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