Brad Pitt living life backwards as Benjamin Button in David Fincher's "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story.  The film opened today.  (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

THE POPCORN REEL FILM REVIEW/"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button"

He's Growing Younger By The Hour, With Life And Death Flickering Backwards By The Minute, All 167 Of Them

By Omar P.L. Moore/December 25, 2008

Triple-bad alert: Brad Pitt has appeared in three disappointing three-hour movies about life and death.  In "Meet Joe Black" for three whole hours he played Death itself.  In "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford", which was close to three hours, he was the unfortunate Jesse James.  Now Mr. Pitt unwittingly illustrates the axiom that bad things really do come in threes with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", in which he plays the title character, a man who lives out his life in reverse, being born with a degenerative disease which makes him emerge fresh from the womb as a wrinkly old baby, becoming progressively younger on the outside while aging on the inside.  Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, director David Fincher, the architect of the new film that opened today across North America on this hallowed holiday, has taken a most unusual and risky turn in his career.  As always, Mr. Fincher's visual style is in full effect, but it is somehow supplanted by special effects and mediocre acting.  Of the film's participants, which include Oscar winners Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett, only Taraji P. Henson ("Talk To Me", "Smokin' Aces") seems to inject a semblance of soul and life into this lifeless film.

The bad news is that Miss Henson, whose character Queenie stumbles into a new-born Benjamin Button literally by accident in New Orleans in 1918, isn't on screen much, if at all, past the first hour and 50 minutes, which is probably beyond the time where many viewers of this bloated epic will likely check out -- or at least check the time on their watches.  This is because Mr. Fitzgerald's short story, as translated to film by screenwriter Eric Roth, is a long story on the big screen -- an inexorable two hours and 47 minutes -- and for much of that time -- actually all of that time -- "Benjamin Button" feels like an almighty albatross, weighted down by the rigors of its own self-grandeur.  The film swings back and forth like an oddly crooked pendulum between the "progressive past" of Benjamin's life in reverse and the modern-day remembrances of Benjamin Button by actress Julia Ormond's hospital bedside character Caroline and an older, bedridden Ms. Blanchett as Daisy.  Multiple characters narrate the film, with voice-overs occasionally arriving as well.

Fragmented, dismembered and grinding almost to a halt, "Benjamin Button", which spans some 80 years of life lived, is about life fulfilled no matter what the circumstances.  You can be hit by lightning more times than you care to remember.  You can be as ambitious as a swimmer of the seas of continental Europe.  As long as you live life to the fullest and take something from that gift, you are in good shape.  Mr. Fincher hammers this point home many times to a fault in what is a sometimes lugubrious film, with Donald Graham Burt's elegant production design ala Tim Burton's films -- yet it is this very ostentatious aspect that helps stifle it.  Granted, Alexandre Desplat's music score is absorbing and masterful, but when all is said and done "Benjamin Button" plays like a marathon fairy tale of miracle and melancholy, with visual motifs and narrative strictures that closely resemble those in "Forrest Gump".  (Mr. Roth also wrote the screenplay for that film, in which a feather makes its presence felt early on; here, it is a hummingbird.)  In the interest of cohesion and fluidity, it seems Mr. Fincher wants to fit a whole lifetime in real time into three hours, a feat so incredible that its inevitable failure is beyond obvious.  You can almost hear the narrator of a certain daytime soap opera intone: "like sands in the hourglass, these are the days of our lives."  Precious days (and hours) of time that you can't have back.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is indeed curious.  For all its impressive make-up and emphasis on the curios and sideshows the film isn't about its main character; rather the distinct and more interesting people that Mr. Button encounters on his travels -- the loves, the friends, the losses, the anonymous souls along the beaten path called life.  Mr. Pitt inhabits Benjamin Button with charm and tenderness, but perhaps by design we don't get a sense of the totality of his performance due to the ever-changing being he inhabits.  He projects only fragments of maturity and discovery in Button, not necessarily by his mere presence as the character but more importantly through the travails of other characters.  Button is an observer rather than a participant.  In this way Mr. Pitt's absorption of the role instead of his complete ownership of it is a modicum of benefit to both character and story, which by itself is static enough without Mr. Pitt's or Mr. Fincher's help.  Mr. Roth's unwieldy script though, is the main culprit (as are the film's editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall).  Mr. Roth has written or collaborated on some very good ones ("The Insider", "Munich") but hits a nadir here.  In fairness, Robin Swicord, who wrote and ably directed "The Jane Austen Book Club" last year, co-wrote the "Button" screen story with Mr. Roth. 

Somewhere along the line there was potential and possibility with Mr. Fincher's new film, but "Benjamin Button" extinguishes its own fireworks show before its fuse is ever fully lit.

Finally, a montage sequence hurts the film, which should have avoided the need for a third hour.  The montage looks more like a retrospective of Mr. Pitt's film career than a presentation of the evolution or arc of the title character he plays here.  In the montage you see traces of "Spy Game" and a Redford-esque persona, a flicker that resembles "Seven Years In Tibet", a flash evoking "Legends Of The Fall", and even a "Meet Joe Black"-like moment.  "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" had been kicked around in Hollywood as an idea for a big screen adaptation for decades, according to the film's production notes, and now people everywhere will have a three-hour film to kick around.  Ultimately, "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" may grow and resonate with greater appreciation a generation or two from now, but in the here-and-now of Christmas Day 2008, sadly, lots of money, great talent, skill and filmmaking proficiency have been frittered away in minutes, not moments, as part of the film's tagline insists.


With Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Tom Everett, Elias Koteas, Madisen Beaty and Elle Fanning.  Cinematography by Claudio Miranda.

"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking.  The film's duration is two hours and 47 minutes, and feels like four.  At theaters now across the U.S. and Canada.
 

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