The film is wonderfully crafted and well acted; the performances are compelling and engaging, and the characters are realistic and endearing. The film transports you back in time and place, and the journey through Louisiana from 1920 to the present is wonderful. Perhaps the best thing about the movie, however, is the founding premise: Benjamin is born very old and then grows younger as he ‘ages’. Along the way, he meets Daisy who is on the opposite path from childhood toward old age, and approximately 40 years into the narrative, they become a couple, just as each is approaching ‘midlife’. That premise alone is worth the price of admission and the novelty of the narrative is worth your time.
But sadly, the premise seems tragically wasted as the film exposes the cultural and secular dilemma we find ourselves in as a nation. Remember that every film teaches something, whether directly or indirectly. Every movie we watch either openly promotes a value or tacitly encourages it by choosing to highlight one belief or aspect of life over another. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie that teaches and promotes three values or cultural truths that are slowly eating away at the fabric of our nation, and while I risk sounding like an old prude here, I’d like to examine three concepts that I found disturbing as I watched the movie…
The movie also attempts to draw us into the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy in a powerful and romantic way. The filmmakers want us to understand the power of their love for one another. Daisy and Benjamin stay together for a number of years and it is interesting to see which portions of their relationship are highlighted in order for us to understand the nature of their love for one another. Not surprisingly, the film spends most of its time showing us their relationship in the very early stages of romance and excitement. They are unmarried and without children. They take trips on sailboats and playfully decorate their new apartment. They are free to do whatever they want without the responsibility or challenges of parenting. In fact, their entire relationship changes once the pregnancy is announced.
With Age Comes Wisdom, Right?
The premise of the film is immediately engaging. Benjamin, at 1 year of age, appears to be 95 years old. He is raised by his adopted mother in a home for the elderly. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up; Benjamin appears very old but has the boy-like jubilance and innocence you would expect to find in a young child. He is treated with respect that is seldom offered young children. He appears to be in his 80’s and 90’s and is shown the dignity that this age would command. As a result, he is privy to conversations and wisdom that is usually reserved for the aging. The early portions of the film are well conceived and the audience is invited to remember that age is more about attitude than it is about chronological age. In addition, we are also reminded that children can learn much from the elderly.
As Benjamin grows “young” in the film, an interesting reality emerges. Benjamin, after 50 years of living, now appears to be 40 years old, yet he is naturally unlike any other 40 year old we might encounter. He is a 40 year old man who has been exposed to 50 years that were lived from death ‘backwards’. He has engaged in conversations with those who were much older than his true age. He has lived and learned from those who have experienced full and complete lives. Think about it. A man like this would eventually appear to be 20 but have the wisdom of a 60 year old man. So, as I watched the film, I was truly hoping that we would see Benjamin act in a way that reflected the wisdom of age and model this wisdom for the audience. But that was not the case. Instead, Benjamin simply modeled the values of the culture.
The pinnacle of the movie is the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy. While their lives intersect earlier in the film, about halfway through the movie they finally cross paths at about the same age, in their 40’s. They fall in love and Daisy eventually becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Benjamin is facing a dilemma. He knows he is growing younger by the day while Daisy is growing older. He is like other 40 year old men that I have known who are facing the unexpected reality that they are about to become fathers for the first time. Many are fearful and concerned about the future. So I was interested in seeing how Benjamin would face the situation. Would he act like a forty year old man raised in a culture that promotes the value of ‘me first’, or like a 50 year old sage raised with the wisdom of those who were part of the ‘greatest generation’?
Benjamin decides to pack up his bags and leave. Without any assurance of how his child might be raised, he departs under the belief that it would be better for his daughter (now 1 year of age) to be raised without him. He spends the next 13 years traveling the world like a member of the Peace Corps while Daisy looks for another mate and tries her best to raise their daughter. Now think about that for a minute. Benjamin chooses to leave and pursue his own path, rather than give what is left of his life to his daughter from the age of 45 to 32 (as he gets younger). Somehow, we are supposed to accept the idea that this act of selfishness is somehow a virtue.
This is actually what I would expect from some of my friends who are in their 40’s and reaching mid-life crisis. Rather than accept the sacrificial responsibility of their families, they often choose to chase some dream from an earlier time in their life. Maybe it’s travel, or a younger woman or a new career. I was hoping for more from Benjamin. I was hoping that he would be wise enough to recognize the value of fatherhood, regardless of the imperfection of his own situation. All of us age and will eventually have to be cared for by our children. All of us must make a decision to raise our families in spite of the fact we may some day become a burden to them. I was hoping that Benjamin would teach us something about the value and wisdom of raising a family rather than pursuing one’s own self interests. But that just didn’t happen.
Romance Is Reserved for the Unmarried and Childless
It’s disappointing that Hollywood has once again chosen to demonstrate the cultural premise that true excitement and romance can only be found in relationships that are outside the context of marriage and children. It is a model that is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Hollywood often promotes these types of relationships (think about all the romantic comedies you have ever seen); those of us who are now married with children know that commitment and passion can thrive even as our relationships change and become more familial. I have been blessed to enjoy such an exciting relationship; 30 years with someone who is still my girlfriend. I don’t think I am the only person to enjoy such a committed and passionate relationship; I just wish that Hollywood would do more to encourage them. After all, if we all become convinced that true love, passion and romance are limited to the earliest days of a relationship, if all of us become convinced that passion and romance such as this are only possible outside of marriage and prior to children, then none of us are ever going to be satisfied with marriage, family or the blessings and challenges of parenting.
The married life is conspicuously absent or undervalued in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; no one is happily married. Benjamin’s adoptive mother never marries the man she lives with and Benjamin himself never marries Daisy. Along the way, Benjamin even has an affair with a married woman who is clearly unhappy in her marriage. Benjamin as a character is unique in that he ought to have the wisdom and maturity of a very old man. Given all that he has experienced (his early abandonment, his time with the elderly, and his varied and exciting life as a tugboat worker), you might expect him to value ‘lasting’ truths like the value of family and children. Instead, Benjamin seems no different than many of us who continue to chase the things that are fleeting (experience and immediacy).
God is Simply a Matter of Lip Service
Finally, the movie seems to be interested in the transcendent, but consistently fails to understand the power and value of faith. An important character in the movie, Captain Mike, talks about the mystical nature of the hummingbird. He makes the point that the hummingbird defies natural explanation, and he takes the time to describe that fact that even the hummingbird’s wing pattern is the symbol for ‘infinity’ (a horizontal figure eight). Mike tries to establish the hummingbird as a symbol for transcendence and supernaturalism. When Mike ultimately dies, a hummingbird is seen to fly from the point of his death, and when Daisy finally closes her eyes for the last time, a hummingbird is once again seen in the movie.
But for all this symbolism, no one in the movie seems to believe in anything transcendent. Each and every decision made by the main characters is made as though there is nothing beyond this life. Even as Benjamin and Daisy ponder the difficulty of travelling in two different directions (one becoming older and the other younger), neither ever talks about the reality that they might spend all eternity together in the next life even if their path may be different in this one.
This is not to say that Christianity or theism is not represented in the movie; it’s just misrepresented. Christianity appears in the form of a revival meeting with a faith healer. Prayer and devotion appears in the marginal form of Benjamin’s mother who frequently reminds him to ‘say your prayers before you go to bed now, ya hear?’ while continuing to live with her boyfriend. The transcendent power of the Christian worldview is missing. There is no hope for a life after this one. As the film concludes, each of us is encouraged to be all that we can be IN THIS LIFE. Try new things. Redefine yourself. Take chances. This life is the only life you get; make the most of it. And as the movie comes to a close, we cannot help but feel a degree of sadness that neither Benjamin nor Daisy was able to achieve all that they had hoped for. Placing all their faith in the temporal life that they lived, they found themselves wanting more. As Daisy closes her eyes for the last time, she can only say, ‘Goodnight Benjamin’ and has no basis from which to say, ‘I will see you soon, Benjamin’.
Look, I know that it’s unreasonable to expect Hollywood to reflect my values, especially when my values often seem to be under attack by those who are currently making movies. In fact, I’m not particularly interested in Christian movies at all. I’m not interested in movies that preach at me. I’m not interested in movies that are in my face about the things of faith. I am interested in movies that are, at least, friendly to the values that have guided us as a nation for many generations, and the values that continue to allow me the opportunity to share the truth with others. I don’t expect a movie to preach the Gospel to my friends; I can do that myself. I really appreciate, however, movies that are not hostile to the values that have made us who we are as a people. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was visually compelling, well crafted and thought provoking. I only hope that it causes us to recognize the value of age and wisdom, the importance of marriage and family, and the power of transcendent faith.