A most 'Curious' epic

Posted: December 23, 2008

Question: Is life still like a box of chocolates if you're going in reverse?

The answer, in the case of the curiously Gumpian The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is a gooey yes.

An earnest epic inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of a man born old who ages backwards, this ambitious effort shares more than its screenwriter (Eric Roth) with the Oscar-winning '94 hit Forrest Gump.

With a title character who collides with some of the 20th century's biggest events, a setting in a storied Southern city, a tale of true love through the decades, and even a friendship with a guy on a boat (a tug instead of a shrimp trawler), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button puts a Hollywood sheen on a decidedly eccentric yarn.

If you can't see the Forrest for the B's, it's probably because Brad Pitt's performance as Benjamin Button goes through many more permutations than did Hanks' Academy Award-winning portrayal. Remarkable digital imaging paints Pitt's twinkly, blue-eyed mug onto the shriveled form of a newborn and several smallish, stooped-over stand-ins playing Benjamin in his eighties and seventies.

When the complete Pitt finally appears, the screen magic has already done its work - and a good deal of the actor's. The movie star summons up wit, grace and a surprising tenderness, but for all of Benjamin Button's scope, Pitt's work in it is still not particularly deep or nuanced.

It's 1918 in New Orleans when Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), a well-to-do button manufacturer, experiences the double trauma of losing his wife in childbirth and gaining a son with the gnarled visage and arthritic symptoms of an advanced octogenarian. It's too much for this Button to bear, and so the father, in desperate straits, abandons his swaddled newborn on the steps of a retirement home.

It is here that Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, radiating warmth and vitality), the caretaker of Nolan House, brings the "baby" in, adopting it as her own. And so Benjamin grows up - and grows younger - nurtured and loved by this lively black woman, in the company of a folksy clutch of senior citizens.

And it is at Nolan House where Benjamin meets Daisy. She's the feisty little granddaughter of one of the residents, and she takes a liking to Benjamin - and vice versa. Clearly, there's a Big Connection there, despite the disparity of years. Several decades later, as Daisy matures into a beautiful ballerina (enter Cate Blanchett), and Benjamin becomes a strapping fella doing his Brando impersonation on a vintage Royal Enfield, the two fall madly in love.

All of this - and there's much more, believe me - seems like an odd choice for David Fincher, the director who steered Pitt through the fierce and surreal Fight Club and whose most recent feature was the creepy true-life serial-killer drama, Zodiac. Within its big themes of age, experience, wisdom, race and love, Fincher works in a few kooky motifs - an old coot who recalls the many times he's been struck by lightning - and gets an exceptionally keen supporting turn from Tilda Swinton. She's an English ambassador's wife who deflowers Benjamin, and then meets with him for a series of nightly trysts in a hotel in the snowbound Russian port of Murmansk.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button clocks in at a hefty 2 hours, 47 minutes, but unlike the insufferable Australia, you rarely feel its length. That, on its own, is a considerable accomplishment. It's too bad that there isn't any real chemistry between Pitt and Blanchett. The two stars - he with his broad forehead, she with those cheekbones - look dashing together, as they meet and remeet in Paris, New York and New Orleans, but the pair don't emit much heat.

In fact, for all its hokey American charm, its grand scale, and sense of history, the same can be said for the film itself - eye-catching, clever, but lacking any real passion.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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