Brad Pitt runs Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which ranks with the best films about youth (say, Hope and Glory) and mortality (say, The Dead). It starts in 1918, when Benjamin Button is born with an old face and dilapidated plumbing and wrinkled skin over an infant body, and ends in 2005, when his true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), completes the telling of his story.
Every chapter in between brings with it a fresh air of discovery. And the movie's emotional completeness leaves you poised between sobbing and applauding - it comes from a full comprehension not just of one man's life, but of the intersection of many lives over the course of the 20th century.
The director, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), working from a robust yet tender script by Eric Roth, weds his painter's eye to a composer's rhythm. His filmmaking has the musical beat, and the heartbeat, of a prime E.L. Doctorow novel (such as Ragtime) rather than the wan F. Scott Fitzgerald story it's actually based on. The result is a masterpiece: funny, harrowing and magical.
In the title role, Pitt doesn't become recognizable as Pitt until midway through. But he gives a subtly humorous and wise and insidiously moving performance even when movie magic plants his eyes in digital faces atop other actors' bodies. After his mother dies in childbirth, his father, crazed by loss and horrified by his son's wizened visage, leaves him on the steps of a New Orleans old-age home. From that night in 1918 (at the close of World War I) to another night 25 years later, when he survives a Nazi submarine attack in World War II, his story has the open-ended adventure of a young man confronting the physical world.
A lot rides on Pitt's calm alertness and unshowy sensitivity: After all, Benjamin is the rare character we see from birth, and he narrates his stories, too, from the journals that Daisy, on her deathbed, has asked her daughter to read to her. Until Button makes a crucial act of self-sacrifice, the part offers no opportunities for the internal grappling that American actors have grown to love. Happily, Pitt is one contemporary star who knows (as golden age stars like Gable and Cooper did too) how much energy and depth is required to understand the outer world. He makes palpable the movie's central theme: the connection of one life to many through a series of what Fitzgerald might have called "golden moments."
The old-age home's chief caregiver, Queenie (the superb Taraji P. Henson), has longed for a child of her own; the elderly residents themselves welcome him as one of their own. In this early going, at every step of the way, Pitt and the moviemakers sensitize you to the preciousness that can come to life through consciousness alone, even if all you're conscious of is "the weather, the temperature of a bath, the light at the end of the day." (The framing story adds urgency to the film's patient tempo: Hurricane Katrina is on the way).
As Benjamin grows older, and a visiting African Pygmy, Ngunda Oti (played by Rampai Mohadi), takes him to the streets beyond the home, his blood courses with the vitality of a boy viewing life as an adventure. By the time he meets a tugboat skipper, Captain Mike (Jared Harris), he's ready to sign up to sail the Mississippi or the world.
All these characters are enacted with aplomb; the performers appear enthralled by writing that boasts sharp edges and surprises. (Captain Mike, for example, always wanted to be an artist and has turned his torso into a canvas for his idiosyncratic tattoos.) When Benjamin and Captain Mike wind up in Russia, Tilda Swinton appears as Benjamin's first lover, Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British diplomat and spy. There's a mysterious poetry to the formality of their encounters, and a real visceral charge, too; it makes sense when you learn that her goal in life was to swim the English Channel.
But the woman who changes Benjamin's life is his true love, Daisy, the granddaughter of a woman in the old-age home. And she changes the movie, too. The suspense comes from wondering whether she and Benjamin will meet, not just when they're remotely age-appropriate, but, more important, when they're also ready for each other emotionally.
You may grow impatient for that to happen as soon as you see Blanchett in the part. She's luminous and sylphlike as a dancer for George Balanchine and Agnes DeMille. But she's caught up in America's exploration of European sophistication and modernism after World War II; she isn't ready for Benjamin's plain-spoken authenticity. He goes through a leather-jacket, motorcycle phase of his own. When a calamity slows her down, their union is equal, passionate, perfect. The movie's portrait of a happy marriage built on love and improvisation is so blissful that you don't want it to end, though you know it must. As glorious as she is as a lover, Blanchett is piercing and soulful as a woman who must mother her own husband.
Without an ounce of pretension or bombast, Fincher and Roth link the growth and deepening of these characters to the evolution of our national character in the American century. Both the director and the writer found fame as different kinds of fabulists (Fincher with Se7en, Roth with Forrest Gump), yet found their voices as realistic artists (Fincher with Zodiac, Roth with Ali and The Insider). The Curious Case of Benjamin Button brings all their gifts together.
This film's imaginative glow is never imposed on the material. It comes from deep within each character, setting and set piece. The movie begins with a magnificent stroke: During World War I, a blind New Orleans clockmaker creates a clock that runs backward, to represent the grief of mourners of the war dead who wish they could roll back time and see their loved ones again. The filmmakers pepper similar touches throughout the movie, some as transcendent as the flight of a hummingbird, others as cool as the anatomy of a car accident.
What's crucial is that Fincher connects these lyrical coups organically to the lives on the screen. Fleeting portraits of the people in Benjamin's life are enough to make its full tapestry come alive in your mind and heart. David Fincher has always seemed to me a talented and clever, sometimes passionate and questing, director. Now I think he's a great one. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great American movie.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
(Paramount Pictures) Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson. Directed by David Fincher. Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Time 159 minutes.