HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 26, 2009
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Turner
This Academy Award nominee, about a man born with physical characteristics of an eighty-six year old person who then ages backwards, is designed to pull on the strings of your heart. It carries out its purpose successfully, although the power of the pull is greater in the immediacy of the movie theatre than it is a few hours later in memory.

Making it was evidently a gigantic technical challenge. Getting an elderly man's head on a infant's body was just the beginning of the difficulties. Depicting the character at age seven, when he was seventy-nine -- so to speak -- and then onward to his death at about six months must have kept the filmmakers at the edge of distraction. They do it all well though. There are no scenes when Benjamin seems a made-up thing. I'm not sure they handle the chronology perfectly. Benjamin at twenty-six looks younger than a sixty year old man, but by that point in the film the process is established so firmly in the viewer's mind that the issue of perfect correlation has slipped away.

This is a love story. I'm not sure how old Benjamin is when he meets five-year-old Daisy, but from that point forward until she, as an elderly woman, holds the dying infant in her lap, their lives intersect at intervals, including one blissful five year span when they are together at about the same age.

The philosophy of the film -- if you can assign such a portentous term to a movie -- is that each moment of life has its integrity and its value. We tend to think of life as a whole, strung together in the normal way. We also tend to think that unless the whole thing turns out well, the parts are diminished and in some cases completely spoiled. Benjamin Button argues against that view of things. Each interval is what it is, and life is the bundle of all of them, each little part carrying its own meaning.

Since a large part of the film is set in a home for old people, there's lots of speculation about the meaning of time, and death. Different people have different perspectives, and each one appears to work reasonably well for the person who holds it.

I had not known that the story is told through the reading of a diary -- or a kind of autobiography -- by Benjamin's and Daisy's daughter while she sits in a New Orleans hospital room beside her dying mother. The daughter had not known she was Benjamin's daughter until that moment. Her emotions obviously are complex, but I thought more could have been done with them than was.

The two principal actors, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, carry their roles ably. Pitt insisted on playing his character all the way through, from the years immediately after birth until young manhood. He does it best as an elderly man moving towards middle age. By the time he reaches his early fifties, he is merely Brad Pitt, which is not all that bad, but not quite as much of Benjamin as you might wish.

An unexpected pleasure for me was the depiction of New Orleans, where Benjamin is born and raised, and to where he returns when he becomes a confused child. The flavor of the city before Katrina spreads an elegiac tone throughout the story, and Daisy's death just as the hurricane comes smashing through punctuates the message that all things pass.

It's certainly an enjoyable film. Whether it has the power to hold the memory and become a classic can't yet be told. I don't even want to speculate about it.


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