Review: 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

Brad Pitt plays a man aging backward in an anecdote stretched to would-be epic proportions.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Young at heart: Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a man who ages backward. Appearing younger as he gets older creates some poignancy in his love life as he only looks the same age as his amour for a brief period.
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"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is about a man who ages backward. With a running time of almost three slow-going hours, the movie definitely makes you feel as though you're aging forward.

Based flimsily on a minor F. Scott Fitzgerald story, it's an anecdote stretched to would-be epic proportions.

Brad Pitt plays the title character, who is born in New Orleans at the close of World War I with a baby's body and an octogenarian's face and physiology. Abandoned by his horrified father on the steps of an old-age home, little Benjamin, whose mother died in childbirth, is raised by an adoring black attendant, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

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This ancient infant fits right into the crotchety surroundings. As he ages, he becomes progressively younger. At 12, looking 70, he becomes infatuated with Daisy, a resident's red-headed granddaughter who is his own age. This duet is decidedly creepy, but director David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth don't seem entirely clued into the weirdness. They're pushing innocence, not gross-outs.

Daisy – whose name, of course, is meant to summon up the heroine from Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" – will grow up to be played, rather uncertainly, by Cate Blanchett (who, in a flashback framing device, also gets the octogenarian treatment). Benjamin, on the other hand, is embodied just about from the start by Pitt. Courtesy of some amazing digital wizardry, Pitt looks as wizened as Yoda or as fresh-faced as he was almost 20 years ago in "Thelma and Louise." Even as baby Benjamin, Pitt's heavily made-up head peers out at us. Audiences expecting to see Pitt as he looks today are going to be miffed.

Going from old-young to young-old, Benjamin sludges through the years. Along the way, we get fugitive glimpses of the outside world. As a teenager, looking 60, he signs up with the crew of a hard-drinking tugboat captain (Jared Harris) and later is seduced in a Russian hotel by an aristocratic Englishwoman (a sprightly Tilda Swinton). Back in New Orleans, he is reunited with Daisy, now a dancer and bon vivant bohemian. He follows her to New York, then Paris. By this time they both look the same age and a love affair commences, but with the sad realization that, as she ages, he'll look ever younger while growing ever older. Got that straight?

Despite the constant need to recalibrate just how young-old everybody is all the time, there is some poignancy to this aspect of the story. The overhang of mortality is like a brooding presence. But, if you bother to think it through, this is a cockeyed fable: Benjamin's passage from old-young to young-old doesn't really mimic the ages of man. It's just a fancy conceit. It takes off from a comment once made by Mark Twain, which inspired Fitzgerald's story, that it's too bad the best parts of life are at the beginning and the worst parts are at the end.

This variation on G.B. Shaw's "Youth is wasted on the young" is good for a laugh, or a cry, but it doesn't apply very much to this movie, in which neither the beginning nor the end of Benjamin's life evokes high drama. The unintended consequence of this movie may be that legions of Brad Pitt fans will recoil from the image of what their idol may one day look like. Such are the lessons of mortality, Hollywood-style.

If this movie is somewhat reminiscent of "Forrest Gump," that's because it was also scripted by Eric Roth, who once again gets to indulge his dubious talent for simpleton mythmaking. Like Forrest, Benjamin is a holy fool to whom everything happens. Except not very much happens. At least "Forrest Gump," a movie I disliked mightily, brought in the outside world in a big way. "Benjamin Button," despite a few references to the world wars and hurricane Katrina, is hermetically sealed in its own fatuous neverland. It doesn't even reference the racial struggles in the Old South, where so much of the action, actual and metaphorical, takes place.

Of course, there are those who will argue that "Benjamin Button" isn't about history at all – it's really a love story for the ages. It's more like a love story for the aged. By the time the movie finally ends, that includes us all. Grade: C (Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language, and smoking.)

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