The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Director: David Fincher
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Robin Swicord
Adapted from: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jared Harris, Mahershala Ali, Elias Koteas, Tilda Swinton
Nominations: Picture, Director – David Fincher, Actor – Brad Pitt, Supporting Actress – Taraji P. Henson, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Score, Sound, Visual Effects, Makeup
Wins: Art Direction, Visual Effects, Makeup

It’s interesting how a minor change in a familiar story can change the entire dynamics of character and theme in a film.  For example: a young American male falls in love with a childhood friend, lives life while his love rebukes him, learns about life from the more interesting people around him, finally consummates his relationship with the woman he loves (but it’s short-lived), and realizes that everything and everyone in his life has shaped who he is and what he believes.  Now the fun part is naming how many movies fit that description (with maybe a slight alteration).  A few off the top of my head:

  • The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982)
  • Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)
  • Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
  • Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998)
  • Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)
  • Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)
  • The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)

There are probably dozens more (leave them in the comments), but those are seven films that more or less follow the same major beats, yet each of them is their own entity.  There’s a superhero movie, a period piece, a modernized Dickens tale, a fantasy comedy…  A little change to the formula makes for a wholly new cinematic experience.

That’s essentially why The Curious Case of Benjamin Button works.  Nothing on the surface of the story is new or interesting—but toss in the twist of a protagonist who ages in reverse and everything takes on a fresh perspective.  Not only does that character approach the world differently, but all other characters react differently to him (and typically unexpectedly).  For Benjamin Button, this is especially accurate given his being raised in an elderly care home.  Like his housemates, he looks, feels, and acts as if he’s on the verge of death; any day could be his last, so he (seemingly more subconsciously than consciously) lives each like it’s a gift.  It’s a simple optimism—akin to Forrest Gump’s—in that Benjamin’s not necessarily finding a bright side or silver lining, but is instead not letting the darkness creep in.

While much can be written about the thematic and symbolic importance of Benjamin’s condition, I’d rather look at some of the relationships Benjamin has throughout his life.  The first person to treat Benjamin like a human being and not a fragile object is Ngunda, who sees Benjamin as a kindred spirit: both are “others” in the world, oddities that are ogled and indescribable because of how they are apart from normalcy.  Of the time he spends with Ngunda, Benjamin states, “It had been the best day of my life.”  All they do is walk about New Orleans and talk.  It’s fairly innocuous and nothing that would amount to much of a memorable day for most of us.  The spirit of the day, what it is compared to all the days before, gives Benjamin a glimpse of the world awaiting him.  And the pair’s final exchange, when Ngunda leaves the house is indicative of Benjamin being so accepting of endings (and death):

I’ve come to say goodbye.  I’m going away.

Going?  Where?

I haven’t figured that out yet, but I’ll send you a postcard when I get there.

What about your friend, the tall lady?

We are not friends anymore.  That’s what happens with tall people sometimes.

Well… goodbye…

It’s unexpectedly blunt and unsentimental, yet Benjamin—after the initial shock—knows that whatever happens is going to happen. 

His affair with Elizabeth is peculiar, because it seems to mean more to her than him.  Yes, she is the first woman Benjamin admits he loves (Daisy is still but a girl), but first loves are most unusual, aren’t they?  The majority of them don’t last and are short-lived, yet they stay with us for so much longer.  It’s with Elizabeth that Benjamin, already out and about in the world with Captain Mike, truly become worldly.  She’s upper class and elegant—a completely different kind of person Benjamin has interacted with—and teaches him refinement and patience.  These are traits we see him turn too throughout the film: Elizabeth’s influence on him lasts a lifetime.

We can’t deny that the people in our lives have a lasting effect on us, whether we’re fully aware of their effects.  Films like Benjamin Button ask us to take time and think about those people and what we’ve learned from them, why they still cross our minds every now and then.  The wheels of time keep moving forward, sure, but the beauty of memory is that we can turn it back at any time.  Family and friends are ageless and timeless, because our memories are forever.