When I was a boy I read a comic book about an alien civilization wherein infants started as shriveled up withering beings and ended their lives as newborn babies. I don't know if it was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though it possibly was as it's an improbable tale to otherwise concoct. No less so having been brought to the screen from Eric Roth and Robin Swicord's adapted story and Eric Roth's screenplay and by director David Fincher, but what is fanciful as a log line idea has nonetheless become an engrossing and sweeping motion picture.
We begin with the story of a strange clockmaker, who, grieving for his dead son killed in World War I, builds a large railroad clock that tells time backwards. Somehow this connects to the birth of Benjamin Button, whose mother dies shortly after his delivery. His anguished father, played by Jason Flemyng, takes one look at the monstrously wrinkled and deformed infant before him, then scoops the tot up and rushes out the door, ultimately abandoning him at an old folks' home.
There, Benjamin is cared for by Queenie, the Black housekeeper, apparently barren and played with so much love by Taraji P. Henson. Against all logic and the advice of the house physician, who diagnoses the odd baby and gives him little chance for survival, she takes the tiny boy in and raises him as her own.
We see Benjamin Button grow, from a five-year-old boy small in stature, crippled with arthritis and appearing older than some of the actual seniors who live there, even as his mind is playful in keeping with his chronological age. He is befriended by Daisy, the young granddaughter of one of the residents and played charmingly by Elle Fanning (Dakota's sister) who, in spite of his appearance, considers him a kindred spirit.
The entire film is told in flashback manner as a dying Daisy, played by a wheezing Cate Blanchett, is cared for by her daughter Caroline, portrayed effectively in a somewhat guilt-ridden manner by Julia Ormand. She's evidently not previously been too attentive and has come to say good-bye to her mother lying next to a morphine drip in her apparent deathbed at a hospital in New Orleans, with Hurricane Katrina's onslaught as an unnecessary backdrop. There, Caroline discovers a diary written by Benjamin Button and proceeds to read it to Daisy, throughout which the film progresses.
What unfolds is episodic and at times a bit long, but a good deal of the sequences are quite original, some very funny and most important extremely intriguing, much of which holds our attention. As Benjamin Button, played by varying actors, grows in stature and ever younger, we see his determination and frustration, because, though a ten-year-old, he still looks like a man in his seventies. However, unlike the horrific aspects of the aging process, the light at the end of the tunnel continues to brighten until the crescendo of Brad Pitt's emergence, albeit appearing much older than the actor really is. Not to worry, for from that point forward until very near the movie's end his fans will surely swoon each time he comes into view.
Throughout his adventures, Benjamin's life interconnects with Daisy, also played by other actresses until Blanchett takes over as a grown-up, until he falls in love with a British diplomat's wife at a small Russian hotel, where he is boarding while working as a tugboat crew member. Though Benjamin appears much older than she is, Elizabeth Abbott, played by Tilda Swinton, and plagued by a loveless marriage, somehow falls for him and engages him in his first affair, not realizing that he is barely out of his teens.
Such is the film, which transports us over an almost ninety year span, and does so in an intelligent and not overly sentimental manner. This, even as Benjamin returns to New Orleans and is pursued by a man who eventually reveals that he is his biological father, Thomas Button. Jason Flemyng, performing the role skillfully and ever contrite, tries to win his son back and begs his forgiveness for placing him on the senior home stairway so many years prior.
And thus do Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett convincingly take us on this bittersweet journey as each heads towards a time when they will eventually meet physically in sync. What follows is the ultimate fulfillment of their love and the reality that awaits them both.
Both Pitt and Blanchett have impressed film audiences taking on roles glamorous or not that demonstrate a range beyond that of a typical movie star -- especially Pitt, who probably doesn't have to do so in order to keep on working. It's to their credit that they give us such fine personas to hold our attention and our concern in a film over two and a half-hours long. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a perfect movie, but it's one of this year's best.
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