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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Directed by David Fincher
  • Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
  • Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett
  • Based on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Classification: PG
  • Rating:

'This story," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of the original 1922 tale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, "was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain's to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end."

Fitzgerald's story began in the mid-19th century with the birth of a old man, who gets progressively younger through the decades. The story is a wry social satire about the conventions of age-appropriate behaviour that follows one man's puzzled voyage from death to birth.

Reportedly the story has attracted Hollywood producers for decades, though Fitzgerald's literary experiment obviously needed dramatic fleshing out. Completely reimagined by screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, and directed by David Fincher, the movie focuses on the relationship between Benjamin Button, mysteriously born old, and Daisy, a little girl who grows up. They cross paths over the decades against the background of key events of the 20th century. The resulting movie itself proves a curious case, with a gifted, obsessive director creating a film whose individual parts are more entrancing than the middlebrow whole.

The story starts with a framing device, as an old woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett, in an almost indecipherable drawl and old-age makeup) lies dying in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina is bearing down. She tells a story, rendered in flickering flashback, of a blind clockmaker who built a great clock that ran backward, in a vain attempt to stop time and bring back his son who was killed in the First World War. She next asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from a memoir, written by Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), born on the day of victory in Europe in 1918.

As her daughter's voice slips into Benjamin's honeyed drawl, he describes how his mother died in labour. When his father (Jason Flemyng) saw his son resembled a wizened little man, he abandoned him on the doorstep of a seniors home. Raised by a young black housekeeper, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), Benjamin finds a place among the old and infirm patients. Several years later, the tiny little bald man, Benjamin, meets a girl, Daisy (Elle Fanning), who has come to visit a relative and the old man and the child become instant friends.

As the Jazz Age gives way to the Pacific sea battles of the Second World War and on to the Beatles on television, Brad Pitt grows from a little gnome with a cracked old man's voice to (thanks to computer-imagery and a floppy wig) even younger and prettier than he is now. Benjamin befriends a former African bushman, goes to sea on a tugboat with a hard-drinking captain (Jarred Harris) and ends up in Russia. Daisy becomes a dancer, has affairs and blows hot and cold with Benjamin as he grows progressively younger and, when finally the timing is right, gets together with her old-young beau.

Clocking in at a lengthy 166 minutes, Benjamin Button feels both fastidious and rambling. The stylish, emotionally remote direction and would-be poignant screenplay often feel at odds: Director David Fincher usually specializes in movies of alienated obsession ( Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac); screenwriter Eric Roth is best known for sentimental allegories ( Forrest Gump, The Postman) and episodic docudramas ( Ali, Munich). It's an odd mix; an art film with a rambling narrative, or a warm-hearted story coldly told.

Roth and Swicord's screenplay emphasizes real-life sprawl, arbitrary incidents, odd characters, love and pain, yet, time after time, Fincher's obsessive emphasis to design diminishes the story's emotional impact.

In a cramped Russian hotel in Murmansk, Benjamin has his first affair with a woman (Tilda Swinton), the wife of an English spy. It's a gorgeous set piece, bathed in honeyed yellow, blues and browns, but the entire sequence could be cut from the narrative with little loss.

Daisy dances on a New Orleans porch in an attempt to seduce Benjamin, but the composed effect of the red dress, the night lighting and the sounds of a distant crowd distract from the supposed passion. Later, a sequence in Paris, when Daisy suffers a car accident, plays out like a mini-suspense drama, where a series of apparently unrelated events follow a tumbling domino chain to a tragic consequence. The directing is mesmerizing; the story feels like a soap opera.

Pitt's Benjamin has an appealing Zen-master quality, especially in the early scenes, where his old-man voice and body language, are astutely observed and his calm, reactions have a humorous lightness. Then, he gets younger and moon-eyed and blank, and his insights turn out to have a greeting card banality: "Be who you want to be." Or "You can start wherever you want," or "There's no rules to this thing."

Blanchett doesn't get off quite as easily. The name, Daisy, suggests Fitzgerald's most famous heroine, from The Great Gatsby, a character of ephemeral desirability and duplicity. Blanchett is always intense, but when she attempts mercurial, she comes across as prickly. Perhaps the movie might have made more sense if the actors could have taken each other's roles: Pitt always seems light and ageless, while Blanchett never seems to have been young.