After his mother dies giving birth to him on the day of victory in World War I in 1918, Benjamin is taken by his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), and deposited on the doorstep of a home for the elderly. That is fitting since the infant looks like an 80-year-old man with sagging skin, cataracts, and wrinkles all over is body. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an African-American attendant at the place, finds him. She immediately decides that baby who is "as ugly as an old pot" is a child of God who must be cared for, no matter how difficult that may be. And so Benjamin (Brad Pitt) the man-child grows up in the presence of elders who share their stories with him and accept him as one of their own; they are all outsiders in a country where youth is worshipped and the elderly are viewed as obsolete.
Benjamin starts out in a wheelchair and proves himself to be a great listener: everyone wants to tell him what they've been through in life. A man with a poor memory points out again and again that he was struck by lightening seven different times. "God keeps reminding me I'm lucky to be alive." A wealthy woman who keeps to herself teaches him to play the piano. A gregarious visitor, an African bushman (Rampai Mohadi), takes a fancy to the man-boy and introduces him the joys of sex in a bordello.
At the age of 12, Benjamin looks about 70. He meets Daisy (Elle Fanning), the granddaughter of one of the residents at the home. They become instant friends and forge a bond which will last for a long time. In fact, Benjamin's story is shown in flashbacks as Daisy lies near death's door in New Orleans at the time of Katrina. As the winds howl outside, her 40-year-old daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads to her from a diary filled with pictures and postcards about this strange man who played such a major role in her life.
At age 17, Benjamin is much younger and stronger. He leaves New Orleans for life aboard a tugboat that is piloted by Mike (Jared Harris), a colorful character with tattoos and a love of liquor. He travels to many cities and in Murmansk encounters Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who is intrigued by his mysteriousness. Although married, she begins a brief affair with Benjamin and introduces him to the pleasures of caviar, night-time dialogue, and sex. Benjamin also tastes the rush of adrenalin in war when he and the tugboat crew take on a Nazi U-boat that has just sunk a troop transport in World War II. Many of his shipmates are killed in the clash.
Benjamin returns to New Orleans in 1945 and encounters his father, a rich entrepreneur who runs a button business. He is a lonely old man who is dying and wants to reconnect with the boy he ditched years ago. Instead of showing anger or seeking revenge, Benjamin treats him with kindly compassion for he has come to realize that death is a tender moment that must be treated with respect and dignity. Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is now a renowned dancer in New York who stops by for a visit. She has read his postcards from around the world and still feels they are soulmates. She tries to seduce him, but he is not ready for the changes that he sees in her. But after he inherits his father's estate, he travels to New York to be with her. But now she is too caught up in the drama and excitement of her career and artist friends. There is more to their relationship as new twists and turns bring them together again as Benjamin grows younger and more handsome.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is one of the best films of the year with its complex story, idiosyncratic characters, and treatment of the themes of love, time, aging, youth, change, death, and the impermanence of life. David Fincher directs this soulful movie with a marvelous attention to detail and pacing. The secret to the film's powerful impact is the terrific screenplay by Eric Roth who wrote Forrest Gump, a 1994 movie that was also a picaresque tale about a strange outsider and his wild adventures. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that has been substantially changed for the screen. Another plus is the melodic and impressive music by Alexandre Desplat.
What does Benjamin learn from his odd condition that makes him grow younger instead of older? What are the lessons of his adventures that take him around the world and back home again? At one point, he says: "You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. You can make the best or the worst of it."
Benjamin always keeps an open mind and uses each encounter as an opportunity to soften his heart. He makes the best of bad situations and does not allow them to bring him down. He demonstrates an equanimity that enables him to handle failure and success, defeat and victory, with calm. One of his favorite mantras is "You never know what's coming for you." It is best to see everything as a mystery that does not need to be solved or explained away. Just live in the present moment and savor what presents itself to you.
A sense of wonder is a trademark of Benjamin's personality. As a man-child in the home for the elderly, he listens to the house breathing. As a child-man he savors the start of the day looking out over the water just like his father did. Benjamin learns how to let go and not to cling to anyone: "We're meant to lose the people we love. How else will we know how much they meant to us?" From start to finish, this character tries to be himself, accepting his flaws and celebrating his strengths as a human being: "It's never too late or too early to be whoever you want to be."
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button reminds us that the best thing we can do is make the most of our journey and be thankful for the people we meet along the way. It's all gift. Benjamin embodies the zest for life described in one of our favorite quotations by Diane Ackerman:
"The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one's curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sunstruck hills every day. . . It began as mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."
The Criterion Collection's Special Edition Director Approved version of the DVD includes many special features, including interviews with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; audio commentary by Academy Award-nominated director David Fincher plus a look at his creative process on the set; footage revealing the innovative techniques behind the Academy Award-winning visual effects and makeup, showing how Brad Pitt was aged, and an interview with composer Alexandre Desplat about the score. Featurettes cover the film's storyboards, costumes, and art direction, and still galleries show costume designs and behind-the-scene of the production.