By Roger Moore
The film stars Brad Pitt, but it takes a while before he looks like himself.
There’s a lot of “Gump” in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” This meandering parable about a man born old who ages into adulthood, then youth and finally infancy, is a film that meditates on love, aging, death, each to its season. Since it was written by the same fellow (Eric Roth) who adapted “Forrest Gump,” “Button” has many “Gump” characteristics.
Where Forrest had his wandering muse, Jenny, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) has high-living Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Where Gump framed its story within Forrest’s recollections on a Savanna park bench, Button narrates his story from a diary read by a daughter (Julia Ormond) waiting for her aged mother (Blanchett) to die as Hurricane Katrina roars into New Orleans.
And where Forrest found that “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get,” Button learns that “You never know what’s coming for you.”
But director David Fincher and screenwriter Roth, venturing far from the plot of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Benjamin Button” short story, still cling to the profundity in Fitzgerald’s words. A life lived out of order just might be the secret to happiness.
Benjamin is born a decrepit little old man. As he grows from a digitally created mini Brad Pitt, his posture straightens, his hair gains color and with each passing year, he is more vigorous.
Benjamin is raised by a nurse in a nursing home. As Queenie, his “mom,” Taraji P. Henson is the heart and life of the film’s first hour, passing wisdom on to the little old man she raises among other little old men and women.
“We all going the same way,” she teaches. And Benjamin listens.
He meets the fair Daisy when she’s entirely too young for him, but he carries her flame. Years pass, she becomes a ballet dancer and he grows more age appropriate. But both have life experience to gather before their ships can stop passing in the night. Benjamin views World War II from the deck of a tugboat and takes up with an older (emotionally) woman, the wife of a British spy in Russia, played with sympathy and experience by Tilda Swinton.
Benjamin learns that age isn’t the barrier to accomplishment that we treat it as, that for everything there is a season and “when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”
Pitt is quite good in the lead, even if it does take close to two hours for him to show up in a matinee idol form we’ve all come to know. It’s an underplayed performance, nicely pitched against great actresses who give Queenie life-affirming warmth and Daisy vivacious impatience.
The fable unfolds in a series of entertaining, beautifully shot and occasionally under-lit episodes (a Fincher trademark). But did they really need two hours and 40 minutes to get across what Fitzgerald chewed over in just a few pages? Plan all you want, but we don’t know where the joy or pain will be until we pop open that box of chocolates.