I recently saw an interesting film. It's about a boy and girl who meet in their youth, then go their separate ways: one to war, the other to pursue a career in the arts. Their lives continue to intertwine, but when her life takes a turn for the worse and he wants to be her hero, she pushes him away. Finally, she comes back to him, and they are together until his condition — which all his life has made him different and kept him apart from society — ultimately drives them apart.
Sound familiar? It should — it's Forrest Gump. But the movie I saw was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who is born old and gets younger. The main difference between the two is that, while Forrest Gump was funny with a touch of sad, Benjamin Button is sad with a bit of funny.
Before we begin our story, we're told a brief tale of a blind clockmaker. It's pleasant enough but does not tie directly into the life of Benjamin Button, delaying our introduction to that character. Once we get there, it's a fascinating tale. Reaction to Benjamin's condition is muted, and for awhile, it's amusing to see the reactions of disbelief he encounters living in a 1920s New Orleans retirement home. Eventually, Benjamin's mental age is old enough, and his body young enough, for him to strike out on his own with great enthusiasm. But he soon finds the coldness and loneliness of the real world unbearable, sending him back to Louisiana — but you can never truly go home again.
I can't remember the last time I saw a Brad Pitt film. Benjamin Button reminded me how unfortunate it can be when actors make the news for all the wrong reasons. We sometimes become so fascinated by the personal lives of the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, and Tom Cruise that their perceived character flaws overshadow their genuine talent.
What's more remarkable is how little Brad Pitt is actually in this film. I am told that much of the first 40 minutes features not the actor himself, but a computer-generated double. I don't know if this is true, or if technology like image metrics was in fact used in place of makeup on several body doubles, but whatever the technique, it's astounding how few artifacts were present to alert the audience to this substitution.
The film has a colorful supporting cast of characters who come and go. One mainstay is Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones 4; Lord of the Rings) as love interest Daisy. I did not see in Ms. Blanchett's biography that she trained as a dancer, but she certainly carries herself as one in this film. Those performances and her striking features make for a memorable role.
The movie makes some notable departures from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story. Since the original was written in 1912, it obviously had a different setting, with Button fighting in the Civil War, not World War II. But of greater significance is Button's condition and the reactions of his loved ones. In the book, he is born more literally with an old man's body — all five feet of it — and, more important, an old man's mind as well. When Mr. Button first meets his strange son, the newborn asks him for a robe and a cigar. The boy is sent to school, but his mind is far too advanced to be as easily amused as a child would be. His advancing youth embarrasses those around him, who in contrast are getting older and weaker, and they demand he cease such rude behavior (as if his aging was entirely within his control). As he gets younger, he finds himself disrespected by his own son and unable to return to the military service in which he'd earned rank. These differences in setting and encounters underscore a more basic difference: in the book, the conflicts caused by Benjamin's age are often external, and the film moves that struggle to be internal, as Benjamin is rarely physically handicapped by or socially ostracized for his condition.
Both the book and the film can be off-putting at times, but the movie at least tosses the audience the occasional joke (often provided by the aging residents of Benjamin's home) to offset the almost continual stream of funerals. The closing montage is especially poetic, tying all the strings of Benjamin's sad life into a tapestry as rich as Siddhartha's:
"I figured out one thing. If you're growing older or getting younger, it really doesn't make any difference. Whichever way you're going, you have to make the most of what this is. Along the way, you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music; some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons; some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers… and some people can dance…"