The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a flawed movie. It runs for almost three hours and could've easily run for two. It's filled with bizarre affectations, indulgences, and plot threads which are as frustrating as they are amusing. But you know what? The "amusing" part counts for a lot, and when I left the theater, I was smiling and had a tear or two in my eye. That's what matters, and on those terms, Benjamin Button delivers as pure entertainment.
About that superfluous hour: Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it's all at the beginning. It's unfortunate because for a while there, I was honestly bracing for severe disappointment. During childbirth, Benjamin Button's mother dies. His father (Jason Flemyng), a button-maker battling the advent of the zipper, takes one look at him and promptly pulls a Moses on the reeds, leaving the child in a basket on the nearest doorstep he can find. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) finds him, and raises him at the nursing home where she works. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) requires a lot of special care and attention for, you see, he was born old and shriveled-up, blind from cataracts and with a failing immune system. But as he ages, his body grows younger.
Director David Fincher never really pulls off the set-up. I appreciate the twisted slant he puts on things, and the folksy charm that makes it pop, but Benjamin as an old man infant is kind of disturbing. The CGI and make-up effects are all top notch, to be sure, but seeing a tiny old man acting like a five-year-old with Brad Pitt's face glued on is just unnatural. It's distractingly creepy, especially in a scene where he goes under his bed to talk with Daisy, the young girl who is to become the love of his life (played at age 7 by Elle Fanning, at age 10 by Madisen Beaty, and finally as an adult by Cate Blanchett). If I hadn't known better, I would've thought the movie had just become Big-Budget Dateline.
It's fortunate, however, that we get rid of the awkwardness upfront, because as soon as Benjamin begins to recognizably look like Brad Pitt instead of a little old man with Brad Pitt-like features, this Case starts cracking. The weird psychological disconnect I had with the premise went out the window, and Fincher had me in his hands. Benjamin takes to the sea as part of a tugboat crew, growing progressively younger as he travels all over the world, even getting involved in a riveting World War II skirmish on the high seas.
Perhaps the film's most delightful passage is when Benjamin meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the wife of a British spy who's staying at the same Russian hotel as he is. Elizabeth and her husband were only supposed to be there for a few months; instead, it's been 40. She and Benjamin begin staying up all night talking to each other, developing a friendship that suddenly becomes something more; she's Benjamin's first love, and he's her last shot at happiness. The fact that we're able to see the reality at both ends of the spectrum makes it bittersweet.
Eventually, though, it all comes back to Daisy. When Benjamin finally returns from sea, Daisy has matured into a beautiful young ballerina. She remembers him as that little old man, but when she sees him, she just takes his youth at face value: "We always said you were different. Maybe you are." She vows to love him no matter how young he gets, and he vows to love her no matter how old she gets. But of course everybody in the audience knows it'll never work out. By the time he's the stunningly handsome Brad Pitt we all know and love, she's getting wrinkles. The movie never really deals with any resentment on her part, but she's got to be feeling something along those lines, and Blanchett's performance is good enough to fill in the blanks.
Pitt, on the other hand, is perhaps a little too low-key for the material, but he does solid work, and Tilda Swinton can't be commended enough for giving one of the best performances in an already impressive career. The make-up could've been the star here, but the effects are employed tastefully, to better the story. The photography is excellent too, the visual aesthetic looking as if it were inspired by Roald Dahl's darkest imaginings.
Our source material here is actually a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted for the screen by Eric Roth. Roth has written several great films, including Forrest Gump. So if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has some overt similarities — it's a film about a "special" man who sees amazing things and falls in love with a decidedly normal woman, all told through voice-over — I guess it's forgivable. But by all means, this is a David Fincher film through and through, a curious aloofness undercutting most of the sentimentality (the man behind Se7en and Zodiac doesn't do warm-and-fuzzy).
His approach still doesn't account for a clunky framing device involving Hurricane Katrina, but like I said, this movie made me happy. Sitting here hours after the credits have rolled, I'm still laughing at just how damn weird it all was, and how surprisingly poignant. I can't help but admire Fincher's audacity in creating a mainstream studio film with the freedom to be this strange. It's oddly bewitching.