I don’t know what David Fincher’s directing does for Brad Pitt’s acting capabilities, but it sure as hell does something. First there was ‘Se7en’ (1995), which was so-so, then ‘Fight Club’ (1999), his finest performance by a mile, and now ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.
As you have probably been made aware by the press’s recent touting of all the pictures from the set, this is the one where Pitt's character is born as an old man (in appearance at least), whose body becomes more agile and youthful as the years pass. Sounds great, doesn't it?
Not so when he meets the enchanting Daisy (later played by Cate Blanchett), who sees beyond the thinning hair and wrinkles (and the many layers of prosthetics), for the first time seeing the real child in Benjamin. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the people around them who see only the veneer; Benjamin and Daisy's friendship/relationship is marred by their seeming difference in age, and the (mis)judgments of the society around them. An unwillingness to accept him for who he is, one might say.
Indeed, whilst the film echoes ‘Forrest Gump’ (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) in its "life is like a box of choc-o-lates" sensibilities, the decision to place the film during the time of Hurricane Katrina is pertinent. Certainly, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote the short story from which the film is based) did not set his tale in New Orleans, and there was no inclusion of a young Benjamin being raised by a black woman. It is the films departure from the original telling that lends itself to an allegory for the human devastation wrought by the hurricane, with the U.S government's failure to act swiftly enough in the rescue of the black community.
To focus on this element of the film alone, however, would be misguided; if asked to capture the true essence of ‘Benjamin Button’ in one phrase, it would be 'life-affirming'. Indeed, though there are tearjerker moments in abundance, through the relationship between Pitt and Blanchett (which wavers and falters, just like any other) the film becomes an important lesson on how opportunities should never be missed, and how those people that dip in and out of your life are just as special as those that remain a constant, and those that are around for very little.
Certainly it is these people that not only enrich Benjamin's life, but also the film itself: the visiting pygmy (apologies but I cannot locate credits for the actor) who shows him the 'outside' for the first time, the drunken tug-boat Captain (Jared Harris) who broadens this world further, and Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the married English woman, who teaches him about love and the pain it can cause. Perhaps ultimately, however, the lesson we are meant to learn from Elizabeth is that there are no last chances, that it is never too late, which is the case with Benjamin and Daisy's relationship; after all, as that tired, old cliché goes, isn't it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?