Brad Pitt is a very fine actor (see “Twelve Monkeys” and “True Romance”) but in this epic fantasy his diligent and thoughtful performance contributes less to the film than his appearance, about two-thirds of the way through. I mean appearance in the broadest sense. It is not until that point that we feel that the Pitt we have been waiting for shows up on screen. And it is at that moment that Pitt’s appearance, meaning his golden movie star beauty, provides the essential jolt that propels the story forward into its final, heart-wrenching conclusion.
It takes its title from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who lives his life backwards, born as an old man and getting younger every day. The movie begins with both of its main characters very, very old. One is Daisy (Cate Blanchett), dying in a hospital, with her daughter standing vigil. Daisy asks her daughter to read aloud from an old diary and we go back to the Armistice, the end of World War I. A baby is born and his mother dies in childbirth. The father is horrified by the child and leaves him on the doorstep of a home for the elderly where he is adopted by Queenie (the marvelous Taraji P. Henson), who works at the home. At first he seems like an exceptionally ugly baby. And then as he gets older he seems to be disabled. A nursing home is a perfect environment for young Benjamin Button. He’s just another person who needs help. He is raised in an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance and grows up to have a gentle and observant nature.
One day a little girl comes to visit her grandmother. It is Daisy. Benjamin looks like a very old man but he is really a little boy and he wants to play with her. As she grows up, he gets younger, but there are still decades between them. Benjamin leaves the nursing home to work on a ship and writes to Daisy from around the world.
The digital effects are very well done and by this time Pitt starts to become more recognizable, so almost-familiar that we almost believe that this is the way he looks now, that he’s getting a little older like the rest of us. And then, all of a sudden, there he is, the wind brushing his hair, a burnished glow on, around, and coming from him, the very personification of youth and promise and every possible kind of yes. Our hearts ache with the bittersweet longing for what he has that no one ever will, the look and energy of youth with the wisdom and experience of age. And then they ache again with what he shares with us and every human, the awareness of how brief it all really is and the need for connection to transcend life’s limits.
This is a film with the scope and reach of almost a century but its power comes from the smallest gestures and the simplest moments. And its ultimate conclusion is one of the most powerful and moving of the year.