The subject of death has been addressed so often in art and entertainment that it’s hard to find anything new to say about it. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is all about Life and Death, doesn’t come up with any new insights, perhaps, but it does put a new twist on the cradle-to-grave journey that we all take. It also tells a grand, eloquent tale full of romance and melancholy, the kind of old-fashioned love story that would have been produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age if they’d had the right technology for it.
The title character is born, in New Orleans, just as the horrifically deadly First World War is ending, and there is something peculiar about him: He is a normal size for a baby, but he has all the health symptoms of an 80-year-old man. Abandoned by his father, his mother dead in childbirth, Benjamin is taken in by a barren black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who cares for the elderly residents at an old folks’ home — a good environment, you’d think, in which to raise a little boy who looks like a little old man.
As Benjamin gets older, he starts to look and feel younger. He has all the natural curiosity and immaturity of a youth, stuck in a body that borders on decrepit. Through it all, he is played by Brad Pitt, his makeup-aged face seamlessly attached digitally to bodies of the appropriate smallness. The effect is mesmerizing, almost distracting: How did they DO that? And how did they do it so well? Special effects are now so common in movies that we hardly notice them anymore, but these stand out as exceptional.
But back to the story. When he’s about 15 (and looking 65), Benjamin meets Daisy, the granddaughter of one of the old folks he and Queenie live with. She realizes it’s only his body that’s old, that his mind and soul are her own age, and they become partners in mischief. Later, when she is grown up and played by Cate Blanchett, there will be love between them.
In the meantime, Benjamin’s life — already like that of a Dickens character for being an orphan who narrates his own story — becomes even more Dickensian as he sets out to see the world. He joins a tugboat crew run by the affably drunk Capt. Mike (Jared Harris), goes to Russia, attracts the admiration of a British envoy’s wife (Tilda Swinton), then becomes part of the U.S. war effort after Pearl Harbor is bombed and Capt. Mike’s ship is enlisted by the Navy. Daisy, meanwhile, becomes a dancer in New York and gets caught up in the worldliness of the post-war era, reading D.H. Lawrence and hanging out with beatniks.
The director is David Fincher, whose previous films — “Seven” and “Fight Club,” to name the two most famous — have not exactly been tenderhearted ruminations on love and mortality. (On the other hand, they’ve always featured plenty of death.) “Benjamin Button,” inspired by an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story with a screenplay by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Munich”), combines Fincher’s well-known fondness for technology — this film wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago — with a previously unseen compassion and wistfulness. What could have been a freak show about a man who ages backwards is instead a beautifully sad and often very moving story.
It’s a long film, though, and it’s hard not to wonder, once something exceeds the 150-minute mark, whether the length is justified. Benjamin’s early life receives more attention than it needed, maybe; it’s not until he and Daisy are both adults, meeting in the middle of their opposite lifespan trajectories, that the story really comes to life. The film is punctuated by scenes of an elderly Daisy, in the hospital just as Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, having Benjamin’s diary read to her by her daughter (Julia Ormond) — which suggests all the more that the parts of the film that are Daisy-free are tangential to the real story.
Pitt and Blanchett are excellent, of course; it’s been years since Pitt gave a bad performance, and I don’t know that Blanchett ever has. Pitt gets to relive every part of his career (including the parts that haven’t happened yet), from young heartthrob to old dignitary, all the while playing Benjamin as a soft-spoken Southern gentleman with an endearing touch of fragility about him. Blanchett, I need hardly tell you, is graceful and magnificent in all she does.
The only surprise is how much we are able to care for their characters despite their peculiar circumstances. I think Benjamin’s attitude toward life is inspirational: “We can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing.” He was dealt an unusual, perhaps cruel, hand by fate, but it’s still up to him to determine his destiny. And if he can find a way to be happy in spite of his extraordinary situation, well, then what’s stopping you?
B+ (2 hrs., 45 min.; )