The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) is the fictional biopic of a man – Benjamin Button – which takes us on a journey from his birth through to his extraordinary death. The events of Benjamin’s life unfold in much the same order as any other man – through first jobs, first loves, family ties, etc. The same story would make sense with any other character, but would be rather boring. What makes the life of Benjamin interesting – and indeed ‘curious’ – to the viewer, is that Benjamin ages in reverse. This film, expertly directed by David Fincher in his usual fantastic style, also stars Cate Blanchett in what I consider to be one of her best performances to date.
Told from the point of view of an old lady on her deathbed who recounts the tale to her daughter (we find out later why Benjamin’s life is of significance to their family), the story begins with his birth. Born a deformed baby with multiple birth defects, Benjamin’s father deems him a monster and leaves him on the steps of an elderly care home, where he is taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who cares for him as she would her own son. A doctor confirms that Benjamin’s body displays all the characteristics of an old man nearing death – arthritis, cateracts, and so forth – and it is not believed that he will live for very long, but as time passes Queenie witnesses Benjamin growing stronger each day. As aforementioned, Benjamin still proceeds through life in the usual order. Despite often being confused for an old man, he is a curious little boy who is keen to learn about the world. As a ‘young boy’, Benjamin meets Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the home’s elderly residents, and a strong friendship is forged. At 18, Benjamin leaves home to sail with a fishing crew, still ‘growing younger by the day’. When he returns, years later, he and Daisy are nearing the same physical age, and find themselves falling in love. The rest of the film is the tear-jerking tale of the trials they face due to Benjamin’s condition, and the struggle to make things between them work and to have a family and grow old together as other couples do.
I wholeheartedly believe that this film could not have been so well directed by anybody but David Fincher. It benefits from his trademark surrealism, and the way seemingly unrelated events are given a link which is sometimes left open to the viewer’s interpretation. The beginning of the film sees a clockmaker contructing a large clock to stand in New Orleans’ railway station, which he has programmed to run backwards as a tribute to all the young men who fought and lost their lives in the recently-resolved World War. This occurrence coincides closely with Benjamin’s birth, and whilst it is not directly expressed that there may be a link to the backwards-running clock and the boy who ages in reverse, it is certainly implied. Other parts of the story are also told cleverly by linking ‘unrelated’ events, such as how a lady who leaves her apartment later than planned and whose taxi is stopped unexpectedly along her journey lead to a tragedy befalling Daisy.
The use of visual effects in this film is way ahead of its time and will no doubt be a pioneer for future films. Brad Pitt (aged 45 at the time of filming) was able to play his character from the appearance of a very old man right down to his teenage years, using astounding editing technology to adjust the apparent age of an actor. Similarly, Cate Blanchett (aged 39 at the time of filming) plays the character of Daisy through from her teenage years until the she is an old woman. The technique of disguising actors as younger/older counterparts of their character is often used in comedy films for flashback/forward sequences, but is often done for comedic effect as the actor is clearly not the correct age. In the case of Benjamin Button, however, the technique is seamless, as though the film could easily have been shot across the number of years that the plot spans.
Perhaps the only criticism of Benjamin Button that I have is that many aspects of it seemed to mirror those in the film Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), which is understandable as both short stories were adapted for the big screen by the same Eric Roth. Whilst Benjamin Button seems like a vastly original film on the surface, Benjamin’s life takes a similar path to that of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks). Both are growing up with their separate disabilities which makes it difficult to make friends; both are raised in an environment where people of all walks of life come and go – Benjamin in an elderly care home and Forrest in a guesthouse; both work for some time as fisherman (or a shrimper, in Forrest’s case); both find themselves defending their country as part of a war (Benjamin on a fishing boat which is ordered to assist with war efforts during World War II, and Forrest in the army during the Vietnam War); and both meet their one true love as a child and struggle to find happiness with anyone else before being reunited with their soulmates in adulthood. Having already been told that the films were similar before I saw Benjamin Button, the above examples were glaringly obvious and cannot be ignored. Having said that, I do not feel the film suffers from it. It is directed in such a different style; Benjamin Button has touches of comedy but is essentially a weepy period drama, whereas although Forrest Gump has a major romance plot and undoubtedly holds serious underlying messages and morals, it is essentially regarded as a comedy. Despite the numerous similarities between the two, I would happily watch Benjamin Button again and again, rather than dismissing it as ‘another Forrest Gump’,
To sum up, I consider The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be a masterpiece of a film, with expert direction, casting and cinematography. It’s plot may not be the most original, but this does not make it any less worth watching, and I would recommend it to most people as an enjoyable, tear-jerking work of cinema.