A boarder at the house teaches Benjamin piano, and he makes friends with a little girl named Daisy who is the granddaughter of another visitor to the house. In flashforwards to the present, Daisy is an old woman on her deathbed who is both sharing her memories with her daughter (Julia Ormond) and learning more about Benjamin as her daughter reads his diary to her.
The middle of the film is perhaps unnecessarily expansive as Benjamin, who has been on earth for about 20 years or so and looks about 60, takes a job on a tugboat presided over by an eccentric, drunk sailor, Capt. Mike (Jared Harris, another potential Oscar nominee, if only because of the showiness of the role), who isn’t that different from the acerbic but human Lt. Dan in Gump. After Pearl Harbor there is an exciting battle at sea, and on a stop in a Russian port Benjamin strikes up a warm friendship with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat. Though the woman seems like nothing more than a warm-up for the main romance of the movie with Daisy — we don’t get our first glimpse of a recognizable Cate Blanchett, who plays the character as an adult, until the second half — this relationship has a carefulness, a mystery, and a beauty about it that is one of the film’s many endearing elements. The Swinton character once tried to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but gave up within a couple of miles of Calais. She carries the regret with her like a limp.
Meanwhile, Daisy grows up and becomes a ballet dancer, which gives Fincher a reason to show off exquisite period visions of New York and Paris, but on a return to New Orleans in the 1950s — years go by fast in this movie — she and Benjamin don’t quite click, even though this is the first time they’ve ever been approximately the right age for each other. One weakness in the story is that there really isn’t a strong reason for them to be apart, no real clash of personality, no third party who registers.
The overarching themes, though, of death and loss and a wish for time to flow backwards (achingly captured in the film’s parable of a clockmaker who loses his son in World War I and makes a clock that goes in reverse) give Benjamin Button the feel of a new American classic.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Michael Sheen, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson
4 stars/ 4
167 minutes/Rate PG-13