The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
February 22, 2009 by Zack
“Nothing lasts,” he whispers to his lover, played eloquently by Cate Blanchett–Daisy. He’s grown younger at this point, at the point when he should be at middle age, reflecting on life that’s passing him by in backward time.
“Some things last,” she retorts.
Both of what they say is true, and is symbolized by a clock, and a journal. The clock represents something more than telling time. In fact, it tells time in reverse order. It’s created by a man who loses his son in the war, and thinks that by turning back the clocks, we can somehow grasp something again that we didn’t think we could. Maybe our boys won’t go off to war, he says. Maybe everything works out better. Then the man who creates the clock is never seen again.
This is how we open the film, with the elderly, and dying Daisy, telling this story to her daughter, who is by her bedside, listening. It’s 2005, in New Orleans, and the Saints are still playing preseason games–not even knowing they’re going to endure one of their worst seasons in yea–oh, yeah, right…the movie. Oh, so, yes–Hurricane Katrina is taking shape and headed toward New Orleans, providing a nice back drop to the story.
Then, the daughter takes a journal written by a Benjamin Button, and we begin the tale of how a child was born “old”, and “grows younger”. The book is full of various post cards and what not, but the daughter is able to read the passages, aloud, to her mother.
Button’s life begins in 1918, after his mother dies giving birth to him, he is a hideous monster who has all of the physical ailments that an old man would. In fact, the doctors don’t give him much time left to live. The father, who is stricken with grief over the loss of his wife, and is horrified by this monstrosity, drops the baby off on a porch at a house and leaves it. Queenie, a boistrous and vibrant young black woman, finds the baby along with her love interest, Mr. Weathers; and, after deliberation, they keep the baby and raise him.
Benjamin’s beginnings are interesting in that he is surrounded by old people, and he himself is old–but while he has the physical limitations of an old man, he has the curiousity and adventurous spirit of a young boy. He’s sort of in a reverse day care center. He watches his fellow housemates die while he gets younger, and falls in love with a young girl named Daisy, when he’s still old and decrepit. The girl is also taken with him, although it’s odd since she’s so young and he’s so old. But of course, we know they’re actually around the same age spiritually, and they grow a friendship that builds as the two grow older/younger together.
As time passes, Benjamin takes on adventures of his own, leaving the coop and faring off with a drunken captain of a tugboat, Captain Mike, who gets him laid, and drunk, and shows him the world. They go through World War II as part of the navy, once Pearl Harbor is bombed.
Meanwhile, Daisy becomes a famous dancer in New York City–and when the two meet again, they somewhat revisit the love they had for each other. But it’s fleeting, and she is too young to appreciate what he means to her, and goes back to her “life in the fast lane” in New York.
As the film progresses, and Ben gets younger and younger, he sees more and more death and decay rather than a young person would normally see life–with little reflection, and more wide eyed optimism. But nothing is lost on his maturity, and because his body grows stronger and his looks get increasingly nicer, he is able to enjoy some of the perfunctory, meaningless enjoyments of youth. But, as quoted before…nothing lasts.
The pace of the film is very good, with very few patches of “dead time”. The film does have a few moments where I think they take a few liberties with plot elements (I don’t know that we *needed* the daughter to throw a fit about finding out about where she came from; nor did I think it was necessary for the entire sequence-story of Daisy being hit by a car, even though I know it was supporting the theme of the film. Without it I think the film still would’ve worked fine). There are also a few elements of the script that don’t seem to fit thematically, and I think melodrama at times gets in the way of the bigger picture of the story.
Deeper into the film, Benjamin eventually reconnects with his father, and is given his name, “Button”. Some kind of simple metaphor is here, and my guess is that a button is an ordinary thing (i.e. a “button-down kind of life”), and that’s really what Benjamin is. That’s why I like the choosing of the title of this story as “curious” instead of “fantastic” or “extraordinary”.
Later on in life, Benjamin and Daisy have a child together, and that’s when Benjamin knows it’s time to leave for good. He knows Daisy can’t “raise two children”. It’s here when the film gets a bit more literal and less fable-like, but it doesn’t stray too far from its original premise or fantasy. Backward or forward, we enter and leave the world the same way. It’s all about the cycle of life, and the inevitability of death, and even birth.
And birth takes the form of death with Button, who of course leaves the world as a baby, thus completing the cycle of his life. The clock and the book are the two things left, and as Katrina washes away the clock as it’s still ticking, it’s evident why Katrina is used as a motif at.
Nothing lasts, indeed.
But some things do.