Saddled out of the gate as the presumptive winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is top-heavy with expectations. The nearly three-hour film is expanded from a very short story by literary god F. Scott Fitzgerald. Script duties fell to Eric Roth, who crafted the Academy-lauded life odyssey of Forrest Gump, which Ben Button structurally resembles. Gump had Tom Hanks as the title character, and Button has Brad Pitt. Believe me, Pitt has the more daunting task. He plays Ben from infanthood, a baby born with the wizened, room-clearing face of a man in his 80s. How’d they do that? Digital face painting, baby, which means slapping Pitt’s computer-aged mug on tiny bodies as Ben ages backward till he reaches full growth. Digital kicks in again when Pitt, 44, has to look way younger.
Intrigued? How could you not be? The movie looks amazing. And for the first hour, when storytelling and special effects bond like lovers, it plays even better. You get a rush like Hollywood has discovered a brave new world. The technical wizardry sweeps you away, as baby Ben, abandoned by his appalled father (Jason Flemyng), is taken in by Queenie (the superb Taraji P. Henson), a black attendant at a New Orleans old-age home where death is never a stranger. Fitzgerald’s 1921 story is likewise abandoned as Roth and co-writer Robin Swicord invent their own series of misadventures, starting in 1918 and moving ahead to the present. Ben lifts his fragile bones out of a wheelchair at a revival meeting and walks! Ben tries a whorehouse. Ben meets young Daisy (who grows up to be Cate Blanchett, which is nice growing up). Ben goes to sea on a tugboat with Captain Mike (a feisty Jared Harris). Ben fights for victory in World War II and takes on a Nazi U-boat in the film’s most thunderously exciting scene.
So far, so cool. All praise to director David Fincher — far from the dark territories that made his rep with Alien 3, Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, Panic Room and Zodiac — and determined not to run aground where Gump did, on the shallows of rank sentimentality. What Fincher does, shooting digital instead of on film, is simply extraordinary. His astutely restrained direction fuses ferocity and feeling and creates a world you want to get lost in.
The downside is that Fincher has to keep fighting the script’s push toward big, Gump-ish moments. Fincher dodges emo overkill when Queenie accompanies Benjamin to his father’s funeral. And he brings a cool temperature to Ben’s affair with a British spy’s wife (Tilda Swinton).
More problematic is the relationship between Ben and Daisy. At the moment they meet in age and physical perfection, they’re the most — let’s admit it — dull. There’s a light in Pitt’s performance when Ben is a freak of nature, but the pretty-boy stuff doesn’t engage him. And Blanchett, bringing romantic urgency and a lithe dancer’s body to her role, can’t really rouse him. For all the Sturm und Drang of the film’s framing device — an aged Daisy dying in a hospital bed remembering her life with Ben while Katrina rages outside — the romance falls short of rapturous. While watching the movie wind down instead of build, I was reminded of the famous opening declaration in Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” What Button shows is that Ben is ultimately not the hero of his own life or his own movie. He gets inside our head, that’s for sure, but, frustratingly, we never get inside his.
P.S.: The Academy won’t mind a bit.