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Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Age before beauty
By PETER KEOUGH  |  December 19, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button | Directed by David Fincher | Written by Eric Roth and Robin Secord | With Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, and Elle Fanning | Paramount/Warner Bros. | 160 minutes
Forrest Gump beats out F. Scott Fitzgerald in this adaptation of the latter's acerbic and Olympian short story — hardly a surprise, since Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay for 1994's maudlin Best Picture, also worked on this Oscar-pandering effort. Roth likewise edges out David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a director not known for his sentimentality. But not Brad Pitt, since Benjamin Button provides a 160-minute showcase of his talents (which here seem to consist of an unchanging expression of wry, if blank amusement) for your consideration. Yet, somehow, the film resulting from this unlikely convergence of sensibilities evokes the mystery and pathos of a life lived. In reverse.

That life begins, as Pitt's Gumpy voiceover narrates, in New Orleans in 1918, as crowds celebrate the end of World War I. A woman dies giving birth to a deformed boy, and the father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), enraged and horrified, abandons the infant in what turns out to be an old-age home. Which is appropriate, since the child, christened Benjamin (Pitt), suffers the physical decrepitude of an octogenarian. He's embraced by those at his new residence, however, and in particular by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the African-American woman who becomes his adopted "mammy," guiding him with such philosophical bonbons as "You never know what's coming for you."

For the crapulous infant, what's coming is a reversal of the aging process, a concept more believable perhaps than the suggestion that no racial prejudice existed in 1918 Louisiana. It's not the first such historical anomaly. No matter: the rest home, like the movie, provides an apparent refuge from such dismal realities. Except when the realities serve as a plot device. Like the frame tale set in a New Orleans hospital on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, in which Daisy (Cate Blanchett), an old woman on her deathbed, shares with her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) the diary that relates the story that is unfolding.

Daisy is the love of Benjamin's life — and since Benjamin's life runs in reverse, that presents some unique problems. They meet-cute when she's six (Elle Fanning) and he's a bit older, except that Benjamin looks like Truman Capote on a bender. Pretty creepy, especially when they cozy up under a table late at night. Then again, nobody seems to get upset when the 114-year-old revenant in Twilight hits on an underage high-schooler. This relationship doesn't work out, whereupon the film follows Benjamin's episodic career, which includes a stint as a tugboat captain battling U-boats in World War II and one as a playboy in the '50s living off the legacy of his dad (with whom he enjoys a teary reconciliation and farewell) — a button factory ("Button's Buttons").

So who's got the Button? Daisy, eventually, as their mutual timelines finally coincide, with Pitt in Greek-god mode and Blanchett aglow with alien beauty. During this interlude, when the reversal of aging and the progression of intelligence meet and Benjamin has fully ripened, he recognizes the cruel nature of time, which, whether it runs backward or forward, ends in decline, loss, and oblivion.

Fincher's fascination with, and film's illusory power over, time deepened the mystery of his previous film, Zodiac. Such insights also redeem Button from its cuteness and kitsch. Striking sequences like the blowing to bits of World War I doughboys in reverse (borrowed perhaps from a passage in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five) elevate the story from curiosity to tragedy. It may be a box of chocolates, but the soft centers are bittersweet.

  Topics: Reviews , Cate Blanchett , Tilda Swinton , David Fincher ,  More more >
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