The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the fantastical story of one man who is born old and grows young. He comes into the world a wrinkly aged child. His youth is one of wheelchairs and squinting through glasses. His adolescence has him looking like a man in his fifties. As the movie goes on, he progressively reaches the physical equivalent of a normal teenage youth. Then he shrinks and shrinks, loses his mental faculties along with his memories, and then finally goes out as we come in; instead of opening our baby eyes to the bright world ahead of us, he shuts his and fades away.
An Abandoned Premise?
The peculiar thing about this idea is that it really isn't as important to the story as you might think. You would expect that something as stunning as a man who ages backwards would dominate every stage of his life. It does and it doesn't. People treat it as a mere curiosity and it doesn't ever really seem to result in anything consequential. For example, scientists never express interest in Benjamin or his unique biological process. It doesn't seem to affect his taxes, insurance, or social security. He isn't swept up by some hack and presented as a man whose blood is the fountain of youth.
Instead, the only real consequences of this involve how he grows up and the dilemma of raising a baby (more on that point later). Benjamin, instead of growing up with parents or at a child's daycare, grows up among old men and women near the end of their lives within a nursing home. I found that this, more than just about anything else in the movie, affects Benjamin's personality and subsequent actions throughout the story, making it more an effective argument for nurture over nature than of the unique experience of a guy who ages backwards. Through this 'upbringing', he lives among these people who value every moment and experience because, for them, it may be the last one they have. Thus Benjamin acquires his drive to constantly explore the world and reach for anything that makes him curious, no matter what. His is the ultimate “live life to the fullest” personality, tempered by the perpetual calm of a distinguished elderly gentleman.
This movie is pretty much a distillation of all of our existential fears into a message that, by and large, is glowingly optimistic, if a tad bittersweet. This is the main purpose of Benjamin's backward aging process; it is used by the writers as a tool for dwelling on many questions that affect us throughout life. This could have turned out rather depressing but, due to Benjamin's preternatural calm and understanding, the result is more meditative and relaxing. We see Benjamin's life and watch as he meets fanciful larger-than-life people of all kinds: a perpetually drunk tugboat captain, a discontent wife of a spy, the mysterious owner of a button factory, and more. Through these people, we see their regrets, their abandoned dreams, and we watch as Benjamin encourages them to seize them once more or move on to a brighter future.
This is realized most powerfully in Daisy, the love of Benjamin's life. Daisy experiences a normal life that we get to see alongside Benjamin's own. In a sense, Daisy serves as the audience surrogate; she experiences life and its ups and downs just like we have (or will). Perhaps her most poignant moment is seeing her jealously watch someone who can swim for longer and faster than she can. The mood that results is easy to relate to; we all fear that we won't be able to keep up at some point. We fear age and how that will affect our beauty. We worry that we won't be able to realize our dreams, or that we'll get so absorbed in something else that the time for realizing them will pass us by before we can act upon it. Daisy's life is all about holding on to the fire of life with all of her might, and thrashing about helplessly when she can't find it. She is the realization of all of our fears but, through Benjamin, we are able to realize that there's more to life than that, and that sometimes it's okay to let things go.
Overall, I loved this movie and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably one of my favorite movies of all time. But it isn't all perfection and, with my usual tendency to nitpick, I can't help pointing out how it might have been better.
First of all, the movie is too long. At almost three hours, there reaches a stage where, like in Return of the King, it becomes hard to maintain focus and care about what is going on. Perhaps the fault was in the framing story, in how we receive this tale through a near-death Daisy and her daughter reading Benjamin's diary. This part of the movie wasn't necessarily bad; the daughter discovering Benjamin's letters for her is one of the most heartwarming moments in the story (yes, even I cried a little bit over that one). However, the whole bit about the oncoming hurricane didn't seem necessary or relevant to anything, and that could've been cut. Another idea is taking out one of the people that Benjamin meets; for example, his time with Ngunda Oti (the pygmy) was fairly interesting, but had no lasting impact on the story as a whole. If you've seen the movie before, my guess is you probably don't even remember who that is. But your mileage may vary on this.
Second, I found the dilemma of whether Benjamin should stay and help Daisy raise their child to be important and dramatic, but not a terribly difficult decision. Again, perhaps this is my own perspective bleeding over my logic, but Benjamin's fear of getting to a point of being unable to parent did not seem enough. They were having a child when Daisy was in her mid-forties; even if Benjamin aged normally there'd still be a concern of either of them getting a disease that comes with age that would make parenting difficult. If a normally aging Benjamin had had a history of Alzheimer's in his family history, would it still be acceptable to abandon his parenting responsibilities like he did?
Part of the problem here for me was that Benjamin returns when their child looks about thirteen, and he still has almost entire control of mental capacity. He could have fathered the child and been a legitimately loving parent until then without problem. Even though he deteriorates relatively fast after that, I think it is reasonable to expect that a supportive, loving daughter and wife would have helped him through it. But, instead of this scenario, we are given one where Benjamin leaves Daisy and basically forces her to find another man ASAP to help her raise the girl. This isn't fair to Daisy. This isn't fair to her new husband (as Daisy will always love Benjamin, and because he's basically only there to raise some other guy's kid). And it isn't fair to the daughter, who is understandably pissed off when Daisy, on her deathbed, reveals that she's actually the child of another man. This is a nitpick, I know, but it didn't seem to follow Benjamin's character to make this decision.
Altogether, this movie is very much worth seeing if you haven't already, though I advise either a break in the middle or multiple viewing sessions, given the length. It is a movie that will inspire you to spend time working on your dreams. It will give you the warm feeling that even the worst life can throw at you is merely a step on the path to something greater. And it will give you that bug to go exploring, to walk down the narrow creek, to feel the wind on your face, or feel the sand under your feet on a distant shore.