For a movie about the preciousness of time, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" runs a bit long. At 159 minutes, the tale of a man who is born with an 80 year old body, ages in reverse and dies as a baby, could have been a deep reflection on mortality, an epic on the human experience from a strange perspective.
Instead, the film works best as a simple fairy tale, a lighter reflection on the transience of love, friends and mortality. Directed by David Fincher ("Zodiac", "Fight Club") from a script by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), the film always entertains due to its lush cinematography, enchanting score and mesmerizing performances from stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
The story begins with an elderly Daisy (Blanchett in heavy makeup) on her death bed in a hospital while her daughter (Julia Ormand) reads the diary of Benjamin Button. Traveling back to the end of World War I, Benjamin is born wrinkled and ugly, abandoned by his father and raised by a sympathetic black housekeeper (Taraji P. Henson) in charge of a retirement home. At the age of 7, Benjamin appears in 70 complete with the body of an old man and the digitally-aged face of Pitt. The special effects are an incredible technological achievement, because as Benjamin ages into the youthful Pitt we first saw in "Thelma and Louise," the transition is seamless. Oh, and Pitt's acting chops, not usually recognized due to his publicity overkill, deserve praise.
Pitt layers Benjamin with innocent charm, curiosity and a knowing sadness, crafting a likable, if enigmatic character, who speaks more with his gaze and tone than his bits of dialogue.
Benjamin as a teenager leaves home to work on a tugboat led by a grizzled, Irish Captain Mike (a vigorous Jared Harris). The captain introduces Benjamin to booze, sex and life-long disappointment if you don't pursue your passions. Mike wanted to be an artist, but was discouraged by his father and now tattoos on the side to express his creativity.
The tale continues with various episodes, some more entertaining than others, such as Benjamin's affair with a self-searching married woman (Tilda Swinton). Later, Benjamin fight in World War II, returns home, makes amends with his father, but doesn't gain happiness until he reunites with Daisy, a childhood friend who grows up to be a graceful dancer played by Blanchett. Their relationship dominates the middle portion of the film and though the actors have natural chemistry, there isn't enough development on why they are so drawn to each other than that they've known each other for a long time.
Fincher with cinematographer Claudio Mirana and composer Alexandre Desplate maintains the film's visual and sonic beauty. No matter the era, each shot is rich with detail, like a still portrait of each period. The score creates a dream-like quality from xylophones and harps that add a sweeping grace to the narrative.
If only that narrative were shorter and more filling.
3 out of 4 stars
Bottom Line: Beautiful to watch with performers at the top of their game, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" works as a simple, satisfying fairy tale.
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