The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

A deep premise with facile tendencies.

An emotional story at times detached.

An interesting character with only so much to do. I mean, besides aging backwards. Which is a pretty neat trick, if you can get it.

All these things are true about David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie inspired by a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Everyone was rubbing the rabbit’s foot to make it this year’s great film. It settles for good, instead.

Abandoned at birth on the doorstep of a New Orleans old folks’ home, Benjamin Button begins his curious case as a pint-sized old man, a white and white-haired child cared for by a black mother (Taraji P. Henson). The doctor diagnoses him with accelerated decrepitude and gives him only a short time to live. Instead, Button starts to grow younger and stronger with each passing year. He works on a tugboat, sees the war, inherits a textile empire, slowly finds love with Daisy, the woman he’s always adored (a game Cate Blanchett), and soaks in life.

We learn of Benjamin’s story from a journal he kept. It remains in the possession of his lifelong love, to her dying day (with Blanchett narrating the story under heavy makeup in a hospital bed). Daisy’s daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from it, while her suffering mother fights for life. From the words, we join in on Benjamin’s adventures. Yet their deeper meanings are left to the page.

From this premise, we should be able to gather pithy observations about life. Yet late in the film, we speed through Benjamin’s twenties and thirties, when his motorcycle travels, his wealth, his youth and his lifetime of wisdom would most fully tell us about the world in which we live. Certainly, the story fulfills the George Bernard Shaw quote “Youth is wasted on the young,” and touches on what it is like to age and to love. Yet the second and third levels of wisdom are not there. And while Button’s heartbreaking story might leave the family short on dry eyes and dry hankies, many will awaken to its tender manipulations with time.

Among the film’s curious cases is why Fincher, the director of Fight Club and Zodiac, would choose such a heartwarming project. Written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth (and bearing a noticeable resemblance thereof), it would seem to go against his darker nature. Certainly his impressive skill with creating obsessively-perfect images, lathered here in CGI effects, lends the movie the feel of a tall tale. And yet it sometimes seems like the year’s second case of a dark-natured filmmaker moonlighting artificially in warmer territory. Like Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, it can seem like a person feeling around an emotion as an outsider.

So what can we take from Button? That more than any other high-wattage star, Pitt rarely takes on less than interesting projects. That Blanchett is never less than good, even when she isn’t quite the Great Cate. That Taraji P. Henson, playing Pitt’s warm doorstep mother, has a very solid career ahead. That the Academy is likely to bestow upon Fincher a makeup call for the omission of Zodiac last year (as it likely will for that film’s star, Robert Downey Jr.). In the end, I really can’t complain about such a call. Even if I can’t quite summon love, this is a respectable effort with a story that is difficult to convert to the screen. If it finds a place in America’s heart, I would have no objection. It could age well.