Just yesterday I watched Forrest Gump with a couple of friends. I had only seen this movie once before when I was quite young, and remembered next to nothing of it. I remembered the box of chocolates. I remembered Tom Hanks' Alabama drawl. And that was pretty much it.
And then I watched it. I have to admit, Forrest Gump is a damn good movie. Seeing Forrest's life and how he interacted with the world in amusing and implausible ways... it's good stuff. By the end, though, it got me thinking. Forrest Gump has a lot in common with another movie: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Like Gump, Button is a movie focused upon one man's life story, and how that odd life turned out to be both lasting and rewarding. In Forrest Gump, the quirk is that Tom Hanks' character is slow in the head. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the quirk is that Brad Pitt's character is born old and then gets younger as the years pass by.
After the similarities occurred to me, I wondered which one was better. And now I'm about to make my case for one above the other. You might disagree; I don't really care. I just think it makes for an interesting comparison and topic for conversation.
More than any other movie of this genre (feel-good fictional autobiographies?) that I've seen, Forrest Gump wins out in terms of intermixing Forrest's life with events in history. It is completely unbelievable, to be sure, but that doesn't stop it from being interesting and giving the movie a sense of epic permanence. Examples are many. I'm pretty sure Forrest Gump meets every president from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford in an impressive feat of visual effects; Tom Hanks is somehow imposed into old footage of the actual presidents. Forrest Gump is also present during the Vietnam War, saving an entire squad of wounded soldiers from being killed. He is responsible for discovering the Watergate scandal, founding the Apple corporation, and defending American honor in an epic ping-pong tournament with Chinese Communists. And that is only a handful of examples in a vast sea of events that Forrest is able to influence and change throughout the movie.
Sure, this is completely ridiculous and entirely untrue, but it serves a number of interesting purposes in the movie. It shows us that even someone borderline retarded can change history, even without meaning to. It provides varied milieus within which we can see Forrest shine. And it shows us that taking life as it comes is perhaps more rewarding than taking everything too seriously.
One thing that I specifically liked in Gump that is directly comparable to Button is the growth of the supporting characters. Forrest Gump never seems to change, but the few friends he makes do change over time and their progression is compelling. Forrest's childhood friend Jenny is the penultimate example, although one that is tragic to watch. Growing up with an extremely rough childhood, she turns to experimentation and the excesses of the hippie culture in order to cope, unable to recognize for a long time that perhaps real happiness lies in the example that Forrest supplies: simplicity and faith in the goodness of the self and others. Similarly, Forrest's friend Lieutenant Dane is, for most of the movie, obsessed with what others think of him, particularly his family and their heroic sacrifices in war. When Forrest rescues Dane from that fate in Vietnam, he is unable to wrap his head around the fact that he is now free to make whatever he wants to out of life. And Forrest helps him, like Jenny, to change for the better, despite the fact that Forrest makes next to no actually specific effort to do so. Such is the carefree nature of Forrest Gump.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a similar movie, but I think Button's strength lies in how Benjamin's ability to transcend the dramas and uncertainties of aging and death inspire others to overcome difficulties and faults of their own. Most of this comes through the oddities of his own unique life. For example, he basically spends his 'childhood' among old people because that is how Benjamin looks; old and wrinkly. This shows him how to go through life making the most of every moment, because he spent this time with people who, nearing the end, have learnt to value every second of what life has to offer. Benjamin is able to spend time with and understand people who are going through mid-life crises at a time when, chronologically, he would probably be in college if he was a normal individual. In the end, he is a man who approaches life with a caring wisdom along with the desire to savor every option that lies before him, no matter the consequences. Thus, near the end of the movie, he travels the world without regard to personal comfort or cost, just to enjoy it all, as much as he can, before the inevitable end.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is defined by Benjamin's odyssey throughout life, and Benjamin's own life is defined by these influences upon him by other people. Unlike Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button is a man who learns from people even as he inspires them to change for the better. Thus the movie is a character-driven one. Benjamin meets people of all shapes, sizes, and colors as he passes throughout life. Benjamin meets a woman who believes she has failed to live her dreams, and is able to learn about the value of meeting dreams while simultaneously teaching her that she still has time left to do what she wants to do. Benjamin meets his father who believes himself irredeemable for what he has done, and helps his father to realize that even those who have made mistakes can achieve redemption. In doing so, Benjamin recognizes the value of giving people, and himself, second chances.
And, perhaps most of all, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a love story. Benjamin's relationship with Daisy is central to the movie, along with what they learn from one another in their ongoing quest to make the most out of life. And, unlike Forrest Gump's one-sided relationship with Jenny, the love of Benjamin and Daisy is one that is mutual; part of what makes the story so intriguing is how it evolves over the years and how they learn when they are at a point when they are ready for one another.
It is probably easy to tell that I favor The Curious Case of Benjamin Button over Forrest Gump. That is not to say that I disliked Forrest Gump, quite the opposite. It is more to say that I found Button to be the deeper movie, with more appealing characters, with a more believable tale, and with a lead character who actually changes throughout the movie, and not just physically. Perhaps part of Forrest Gump's charm is that he is constant and always true and unchanging, but I found it more true to life to watch Benjamin Button's search for meaning, with all of its pitfalls, uncertainties, and victories. Forrest Gump I found comparable to the Tim Burton movie, Big Fish. They were both enjoyable, fantastical romps. But, in the end, you can't really see yourself in the shoes of the characters within those films. Or at least I couldn't.
Thus does The Curious Case of Benjamin Button take the prize, winning out over Forrest Gump.