STARRING: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Julia Ormond

2008, 167 Minutes, Directed by:
David Fincher

If nothing else, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button demonstrates David Fincher's flexibility as a director . . .

With a resume consisting largely of nihilistic thrillers such as Alien 3 and the savage iconoclasm of Fight Club, his foray into whimsical fantasy attains a sense of gentleness which we haven't seen from him before. His earthen palate of yellows and browns becomes warmer here: full of darkened rooms and pools of light that serve to comfort rather than unsettle. Another director would have sunk this project with an excess of sentiment, but this one knows how to tinge the sweet with the bitter, and respects subtlety enough to let his audience find their own way.

Unfortunately, while it may broaden Fincher's range, it has very little to say in and of itself. Adapted from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Button posits a man aging in reverse as means to discuss Very Big Things like life and death, the transience of happiness, and the value of love. It works - kind of - but it takes its sweet time in getting there and leaves little behind truly worthy of remembrance.

The title figure (Brad Pitt) straddles the history of the 20th Century, conceived at the precise moment in which a gifted clock-maker sets his masterpiece in motion only to find the hands running backwards. As an infant, he is gray-haired and wrinkled: afflicted with the myriad physical calamities of old age and not expected to live more than a few weeks. He's abandoned on the doorstep of a retirement home by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng) and raised by the loving Queenie (Taraji P. Hanson) who considers him a living miracle. Surrounded by death each day, he slowly sheds his palsied tremors, suggesting that something extraordinary may be in store for him.

"Benjamin Button doles out life lessons of the Forrest Gump variety . . ."

It isn't and that's kind of the point. His one true love appears as a little girl named Daisy, growing older (into a luminous Cate Blanchett) while Benjamin races to meet her from the other end of life's path. He finds work on a tugboat which trawls the port of New Orleans before setting sail for northern Russia and the bloodshed of WWII. He returns home to reconcile with his dying father, inherit a vast button-making fortune, and court Daisy fitfully yet faithfully as the decades melt away. But beyond his physical transformation, his life feels extremely typical: goosed along by a few bits of deus ex machina disguised as capricious fate, but otherwise touching upon the same tropes as countless other fictional protagonists.

More to the point, the scale of Benjamin Button implies a grandiosity which simply doesn't exist, and while Pitt's performance is admirable, it fails to illuminate any distinction in the character. Benjamin is quiet, thoughtful, and reflective, possessing life lessons of the Forrest Gump variety which he doles out in a suitably colorful Louisiana twang. The figures he meets on his travels are equally colorful - from the tugboat captain who hires him (Jared Harris), to the wife of a spy with whom he engages in a discreet affair (Tilda Swinton) - but their eccentricities bleed into contrivance after awhile, and Benjamin himself eventually shares that fate.

We learn precious little about his thought processes during the later stages of his life - the "best of both worlds" part when the vigor of youth is combined with the wisdom of experience - and while he remains acutely aware of his condition, he delivers no insight into the loneliness that comes with it. It exists simply to provide the right mixture of pathos and longing, packaged in an intriguing form to establish him as suitably "different."

And Benjamin Button takes far, far too long to tell his story. Caught up the fairy dust, Fincher draws each episode out like a razor blade, extending the running time to tickle three hours. The gorgeous art direction and nuanced performances help, but they can only go so far before ennui sets in. An awkward framing device does little to help matters, despite a good turn from Julia Ormond as Daisy's now-grown daughter. When it finally reaches its apex, the response is a collective shrug: not uninterested, but puzzled at why such labor has produced such merely adequate results.

Restlessness dogs Benjamin Button from first frame to last, never shed despite all its assurances that it subject is really, truly special. It doesn't hurt going down, but it leaves you wondering what the hell the point of it all was. Hopefully, our own journeys through life won't end on quite such a note.

- Rob Vaux


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