December 24, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Don't rise up too fast, son, or that
latex is liable to fall off.

Grade: C +

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, and Jared Harris

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 39 minutes

For all its highbrow aspirations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button remains a gimmick in search of a message.

Brad Pitt plays the titular orphan, born near the end of World War I as an osteophytic infant abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng) on the stoop of a New Orleans old-folks home run by a black woman called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). As death envelopes those around him (including his biological mother, who died during childbirth), Benjamin slowly improves until it becomes apparent that he is growing younger physically as he ages.

So, while the audience sits around waiting to see the youthful, golden Pitt circa A River Runs Through It, Benjamin sets out for a life of adventure, much of it as first mate aboard a tugboat helmed by an irascible captain (Jared Harris). He carries on a summer tryst in Russia with a well-heeled Englishwoman (Tilda Swinton). But, his heart ultimately belongs to his childhood friend Daisy, who as an adult becomes a world-renowned ballet dancer (played by Cate Blanchett) cavorting in the New York bohemian scene before tragedy forces her to move back to Orleans.

If this all sounds a bit like Forrest Gump, it is no coincidence since Gump scribe Eric Roth also adapts this film from a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.

Benjamin Button offers an inverted view of life and loss, particularly as it applies to Benjamin’s star-crossed relationship with Daisy. Blanchett gives a sturdy performance that would be hailed as Oscar-worthy if it was rendered by an actress blessed with lower expectations. However, Pitt fails to make the most of a meaty role, spending most of the film channeling a lazy Southern accent and staring off into space from beneath a patina of wigs and aging make-up.

The only thing that ameliorates the excruciating 167-minute running time is director David Fincher (Se7en; Zodiac), who paints a lush, imaginative canvas, beginning with a sublime prologue about a blind artisan who, after losing his son in the Great War, builds a giant clock that runs backwards for the New Orleans train station. On the other hand, time seems to stand still during the film’s many dull sections, particularly the present-day framing device of an elderly Daisy laying in her hospital death bed as her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin’s story aloud from his diary, all against the backdrop of an encroaching Hurricane Katrina. Curious, indeed.

Neil Morris

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