The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

| December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen

In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Benjamin, played by Brat Pitt, is an 80-year-old young man who’s born under curious circumstances.
Based on a short story by writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s reported that this is a Fitzgerald piece that veers a bit from the original penned version – and all for the better!
Pitt is fantastic in this movie, and Taraji P. Henson, who plays Benjamin’s mother Queenie, should finally receive some recognition for what’s proven to be a steady presence in Hollywood, albeit in some movies that might not have been considered mainstream.
Given that the movie wants the audience to view life from the end to the beginning, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an amazing story of a man aging backwards, with great makeup, special effects and cinematography. The movie is such a magnificent essay in life, love and secrets that spans nearly 80 years and across many continents that the premise is not so far fetched.
The movie starts in 1918 with a narration about how Benjamin was born under unusual circumstances, around the same time that a blind clockmaker installed a clock at the train station in New Orleans; the novelty about the clock is that its hands run in reverse. The clockmaker’s intent was to regain time, as the clock ran backwards, in an effort to erase sad history.
As the clock is being installed, Benjamin is born to a mother who dies during childbirth and whose father discards him on the steps of a retirement home, at which Queenie works as a maid.
Now it seemed odd for me that at the time Queenie, who’s black, would take in Benjamin, who’s not only white but a hideous looking infant. But Queenie is a nurturing soul. And during that time in New Orleans, the retirement’s home tenants are only rich, white people; many who live there until the ends of their lives and then they’re conveniently buried in nearby plots, and the household staff members are all black.
Soon, Benjamin is diagnosed as having the organs of an 80-year-old man, suffering from arthritis, cataracts and other elderly maladies, and the doctor says that “some creatures aren’t meant to survive.” But Queenie’s faith won’t let her down, as she takes Benjamin to a revival service and during another peculiar moment, as the preacher lays hands on Benjamin for healing, God takes the life out of him, while Benjamin is suddenly able to walk without his wheelchair.
A constant theme, or line, running through the movie is “you never know what’s coming for you.” And Benjamin’s own curiosity about life leads him away from the protection of his loving mother to a world that reveals many wonders. It’s as if he can’t wait for what’s coming for him, but he vows to meet his destiny head on. He’s embraced by many father-figures in the movie: a pygmy who comes to stay at the retirement home as a guest of Queenie’s long-time companion Tizzy Weathers, played by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali; a ship captain who takes Benjamin under his wings and shows him a grand, old time; and his own father, Thomas Button, played by Jason Flemyng.
I saw the movie as multiple love stories: those between Benjamin and his mother; Benjamin and Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett (with whom Pitt paired with in Babel); and yet another between Benjamin and his father (even though this one isn’t so clear cut).
Other cast members include Julia Ormond, as Benjamin’s daughter, Caroline, and Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, who teaches Benjamin the finer things in life, like caviar, vodka and extra marital affairs.
The source of the narrative is a diary that’s being read to 82-year-old Daisy by Caroline, as she lays terminally ill, just as Hurricane Katrina reaches landfall in 2005.
The love affair between Benjamin and Daisy is complicated, given that when they meet, Daisy is about 6 years old, and Benjamin is in his late 70’s. But as the movie progresses, Benjamin becomes younger (played in some cases by children and in others with Pitt’s face superimposed onto other actor’s bodies), until he becomes a fine, normal looking Pitt and Daisy becomes older. At some point, around the late 60’s, they are nearly the same age; he’s about 49 and she’s around 43. They finally consummate a relationship that had earlier never been quite confirmed, as Daisy runs off to become a ballerina and Benjamin serves time in World War II as a Navy seaman on a ship. But throughout the movie, he tries to show Daisy his love, only to have his advances spurned.
While many may not agree that Thomas Button loved his son; he always seemed to keep an eye out for him, as Benjamin aged, or in his case, became younger. Thomas takes Benjamin out on the town once and gets him drunk, to only have Queenie chastise him when he finally returns home. In the scene, Benjamin’s like a young child, even though his body appears old, when he replies sheepishly and in fear that he’d been up to nothing, even though he was noticeably drunk. His deference to his mother seems so awkward, yet sweet, given that he’s older than his mother. But Benjamin always looks upon Queenie as his only mother and he deeply respects her. Thomas also looks out for his son, and finally lets him know that he’s Benjamin’s father, while leaving him his button business and estate, upon his death.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button covers many decades and many locations, including New York, Paris and Russia. Its nearly three-hour timeframe moves rather slowly at points, but the pace lends itself to thoroughly developed story lines.
I looked in awe as Benjamin became younger in appearance; he first started out as an old man who used a wheelchair and crutches and then he’s finally waddling as a toddler, and in the end becomes an infant bundled in blankets, while the older Daisy has come to take care of him. And although they were once lovers; she’s now playing the surrogate mother, since Queenie has passed away.
Pitt and Henson are brilliant in a movie whose premise may still take time to get used to, but director David Fincher‘s (Zodiac) work also makes me eager for Oscar night.

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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