Brad Pitt, in 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

Dir. David Fincher
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★

They say youth is wasted on the young. Not so for Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), who is born with one foot already in the grave, showing the symptoms of a man dying of old age. But he doesn’t die — he ages in reverse, his body developing into that of a younger and younger man while those around him grow older and older. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a curious case indeed. It’s a beautiful film, with some of the most exquisitely integrated digital and makeup effects of the year, and the production design by Donald Graham Burt and cinematography by Claudio Miranda give it a glow that evokes fantasy and memory. But in the final analysis, what is it about?

Over the course of its 166 minutes, Curious Case develops a lot of good ideas but fails to organize them into a cogent theme; it’s a fable that isn’t sure what it wants to teach us, only that it wants to teach us … something. The result is a lot of diffuse life lessons, each of them touching when taken on their own, but they fail to bring the complete picture into clear focus.

Very early in his life — or is it late in his life? — Benjamin learns to make his peace with death. His birth father, stricken with panic over his son’s deformities, leaves him on the doorstep of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who runs a home for the elderly. Alike in infirmity, Benjamin identifies with the aged tenants and watches fondly as they come and go, but he does not view death with despair. He comes to see it as a visitor, who comes along as a sad, but natural and inevitable part of life. Says one of the residents he befriends, “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are?”

When he turns seventeen, he sets out to come of age — such as it is for a man aging backwards. He works on a tugboat captained by Mike (Jared Harris), an eccentric who has extensively tattooed his own body. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the tugboat is commissioned by the US Navy, and in battle Benjamin encounters yet more death. At a port of call in Russia, he encounters an older — or is it younger? — woman, Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton, mysterious and poignant). In one of my favorite interludes of the film, Benjamin and Elizabeth grow intimate, and he learns about the dreams that have passed her by.

Benjamin’s true love is Daisy (played as an adult by Cate Blanchett). They reunite throughout their lives, crossing each other along their opposite paths of aging. Daisy tells their story from her deathbed in modern-day New Orleans; her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) rummages through artifacts of her past and reads to her passages from Benjamin’s diary.

Benjamin recorded the important lessons of his life: “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and how sad it is.” “Your life is defined by its opportunities, even the ones you miss.” “It’s never too late … to be whoever you want to be.” “You can curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” On the page they read like the interiors of Hallmark cards, or fortune cookies. In the film, however, bolstered by a dreamy style that earns such sentimentality, they work.

The problem lies not with the sentiments themselves, but with the film’s central assumption, that Benjamin Button possesses special wisdom as the result of his condition. Not so. Though he regresses physically, he develops emotionally and psychologically much the same way the rest of us do. What insights can we gain from him that we cannot gain from anyone else? Benjamin cannot tell us anything new about aging because, as he says, he’s always looking out his own eyes, and those eyes are always looking forward.

But let’s take a step back. Though Benjamin himself cannot teach us lessons about life, that he ages in reverse allows director David Fincher (Zodiac) and screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich) to bring our attention to their subject: the passage of time — how it gives and takes away, how it can be a companion or a nemesis, how we let things slip from our grasp or hold them tight, and how our lives intertwine, imperceptibly but irrevocably. There is an impressive sequence where Benjamin details the minute circumstances that led a group of characters into a life-changing car accident. How he knows the details isn’t important — this is not a film where we are concerned with realism. What matters is how we affect each other throughout our lives.

Yet when we arrive at the end, we notice Roth grasping at straws. The narrated montage that closes the film — I will not reveal specifics — feels like he’s still searching for his meaning, and Fincher tries to imbue the words with a profundity that isn’t there. We’re left with scattered notions and noble sentiments floating in a sweeping narrative with nothing to unite them.

Still, I am struck by Benjamin himself, whose condition, I think, is ideally suited to the human learning curve: he endures feebleness during childhood and takes his lumps along the way, and when he’s learned his lessons has the vigor to live as fully as his heart desires. If youth is wasted on the young, none of us should be young until we are old enough to make the most of it.