Only Young Twice
So it’s just like this crazy life thing, you know? You’re born, you do some stuff, maybe if you’re lucky you fall in love with the same person who falls in love with you — at the same time that person falls in love with you — and then you die. Kind of not really a big deal, really, same as everybody else, except that it’s all we get. And you hear all those things about youth being wasted on the young and how we’re only young once and Bob Dylan being so much older than that then, he’s younger than that now, and you think, Yeah, I guess it’s true, but whatever, cuz, shit, my back is killing me today and no amount of going barefoot and eating ice cream is gonna change that.
And then here’s this guy, Benjamin Button, who’s born old, like one of those little-old-man babies. You know the kind I’m talking about, the ones with no baby fat and big bald heads and you look at them and you think, Damn, kid, you look just like a little old eight-pound man in a diaper. Except Benjamin really is old, even though he’s newborn, like one of those poor kids who get free trips to Disneyland because they have that weird disease that makes them like 85 by the time they’re in first grade. There’s no free trips to Disneyland for Benjamin, though, cuz he was born in 1918, before there was a Disneyland, and before there was an Oprah to tell him on TV how brave he is, and before there were medical correspondents on cable news to point out sadly that he’s a freak, so he just grows up pretty normal in a New Orleans nursing home, where he was adopted by the not-elderly woman who runs the place after being abandoned for being an actual little-old-man baby.
He can’t walk much at first due to the arthritis and stuff, but as he gets older he gets younger and his arthritis ain’t so bad anymore and he can start toddling around, and it’s almost exactly like how little kids gotta learn to walk, too, don’t they? And as his senility retreats as he gets older/younger, he can start to think and talk and feed himself, and it’s like: Hey, this is kinda cool, how life is life no matter which way you live it. And by the time he’s young enough for, you know, his arteries and hormones to work together so that he can get a boner, he’s old enough to be interested in girls. Come on, you were wondering about that. It’s actually kind of pertinent too, because how people treat the old/young Benjamin and later the young/old Benjamin says a lot about how we approach people based on their age that may not be fair to them.
This is three hours of stuff, this Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and as it toodled along in the middle, I did start to wonder if it was going to be anything more than that: just life, lived backwards but pretty much the same as being lived forward. Benjamin sees the Great Depression and he sees World War II and he sees the space race and he sees the freewheeling 1960s and it’s a teensy bit Forrest Gumpish — old is as old does, I guess. Benjamin meets Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton) and has an affair with her, and then he falls in love with Cate Blanchett (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), whom he’s known since they were kids, since he was old and she was young, and then in the middle they meet at the same age and have a nice romance. That’s when I thought: Okay, but is that it?
Kinda like how life feels sometimes: This is it?
Well, it is it, and it isn’t. There comes a moment when everything clicks quietly into place, and you realize, Ah, I’m gonna sob my eyes out at the end of this, aren’t I?
And you will. Well, I did, anyway.
Cuz what happens is, after an hour and a half of an impressively realized but still rather bizarre amalgam of Brad Pitt’s (Burn After Reading, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), artificially wizened face CGIed onto small actors’ bodies — the FX miracle that creates the old/young Benjamin in a way that also captures Pitt’s beautiful performance is amazing — there comes that inevitable moment when, for the first time, and for only a brief time, we get the real, unadulterated, actual Brad Pitt as he is in 2008 onscreen. Now, I’m not one of those crazy Brad Pitt girls: I think he’s a fine actor, and getting better all the time, but he doesn’t make me swoon or anything. So when I saw I swooned at that moment, it’s not because, you know, he’s Brad Pitt, but because that was the moment when this film slapped me across the face: He’s getting younger, and that’s not fair, when we all have to get older. We’re only young once, they tell us, but Benjamin gets to be young twice. And yet, he is made lonely in his strange old age, so we can hardly envy him.
It’s very strange, and very moving. The film becomes a lovely elegy to both youth and age, to the fleeting ephemeralness of, you know, everything: love, friendship, wisdom. And the sureness of them, too.