At nearly three hours, the film challenges even the most devoted cinephile to stay focused. It also avoids the unflinching scenes of glorified violence we have come to expect from director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en), another bummer for folk of Hubby's ilk. And the film does do its meandering toward a rather predictable end. When Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) enters the world with a superficially explained birth defect that causes him to age backward (born as a baby that looks like an old man), what viewer cannot figure out how he will meet his end? And the film uses tired conventions: the plot is bookended by what feels like a random subplot where a young woman waits for her aging mother to die as Hurricane Katrina approaches, threatening the hospital. I had to wonder why the writers would add this extraneous vanilla storyline. Did they feel a need to contextualize with the present? Did they think the story needed a sense of urgency that a hurricane could provide? The final images of the city flooding as the levee breaks do indeed work with the texture of the plot, but it still seems like a stretch to me.
And yet, both Hubby and I truly enjoyed the film.
The acting alone warrants plunking down your hard-earned cash and your soon-to-be-calloused tushy. I know that a lot of my actor brethren (and... what... sistren?) groan at the mention of Brad Pitt, tending to dismiss him as nothing more than a pretty face and a hot bod. But please trust me on this; his work in the titular role of this epic film proves him to be among the highest ranks in his craft. He manages to treat this bizarre and fantastic character with truth, humor, and subtlety. I have a hard time imagining the challenge of acting under that old age make up and with a CGI baby body for the first hour of the film. (By the way, the use of CGI in this film seems absolutely ground-breaking to me... inventive and fairly seamless.) Cate Blanchett, it should surprise nobody, turns in yet another stunning and complex performance as Daisy, Benjamin's love interest. Quickly becoming a favorite of mine, Tilda Swinton, plays Elizabeth Abbott (the object of one of Benjamin's short-lived affairs) with a simmering ferocity that made me wish her character had her own movie.
The smaller roles played by the lesser known actors, however, give the film its real spice. Jared Harris plays Captain Mike, the tugboat-captain-slash-tattoo-artist who gives Benjamin his first job and taste of life at sea, and manages to transcend what could be a rather cartoonish caricature, giving the man a delicious biting edge softened by a sense of underlying warmth. Benjamin's character grows up (and down) amidst a rotating group of quirky guests in a retirement home. This plot invention allows Benjamin's aging backward to be accepted as it would nowhere else; the residents of the home understand that as their aging bodies do what they do, so does Benjamin's The retirement home also boasts a wonderful set of characters, led by the effervescent Taraji P. Henson who turns in a charismatic performance as Queenie, Benjamin's capricious but strong adoptive mother and matriarch of the retirement home. Ted Manson as Mr. Dawes, a man who revels in telling anyone who will listen that he has been struck by lightning seven times, won over the entire audience and came close to stealing the show with a mere handful of lines. Most of the characters in the film only garner a scant few minutes in this lengthy epic, but that speaks to the beauty of the work.
I take the film, at its heart, to be a cinematic meditation on the nature of impermanence. A side effect of his affliction and from maturing in such a strange environment, Benjamin himself accepts the fleeting and constantly changing nature of life: folks die, friends leave, lovers disappear, wars start and end, people change, he grows younger... The wacky characters at the retirement home drift into and out of Benjamin's life, arriving, taking up residence, waiting, and dying. The other characters (and perhaps the audience) are slower to accept this truth; we rail, as Daisy does, against the aging of our own bodies, we mourn our losses and fight to keep everything as it is in a futile battle against the impossibly powerful force of Time.
If all this makes the movie sound merely tragic, forgive me. Somehow Fincher's work manages to leave us with a note of melancholy mixed with a warm appreciation for living in the moment... it's the kind of film that makes you reach out to the person next to you. And yes, the poignant ending may be heavy-handed in its symbolism and a bit too Hollywood for my taste- but the journey to get to that destination proves worth it.