The Curious Case of Benjamin Button tells the haunting, existential fable of a man, born at the close of World War I, who ages backwards while those around him age forward, the old-fashioned way. Where others are born unformed and unwrinkled, Benjamin comes into the world a decrepit old man; where others wither, he dies in a pink and creaseless state of infancy. For Benjamin, love is inextricable from loss since his path runs counterclockwise to nature. This unsettling, melancholy notion is attached by the thinnest thread to its original literary source, a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But in the hands of director David Fincher, and with Brad Pitt as Benjamin, this Button is a curious case indeed: an extravagantly ambitious movie that’s easy to admire but a challenge to love.
Perhaps that’s how it ought to be. Eric Roth’s fanciful screenplay makes use of a cheesy Bridges of Madison County structure to frame the mythic saga — a grown daughter (Julia Ormond) learns her mother’s romantic secrets as the old woman lays dying in a New Orleans hospital bed just as Hurricane Katrina is gathering force. The old woman, named Daisy, is Cate Blanchett after many hours with make-up artists; the secret is that Daisy met Benjamin in Louisiana a lifetime ago when the two were kids and he was old/young, and their love went on and on in its fashion. A different director might have emphasized sentimentality in the manner of a Robin Williams weepy with a message: We’re all going to die, so love while you get a chance! Instead, Fincher’s innate astringency — his hardness, even, which he has put to such varied effect over the years in Fight Club, Seven, and Zodiac — becomes exactly the kind of tonic needed to balance the sweet/tart proportions of so audacious a cinematic project.
At any moment in this singular Hollywood spectacle, two marvels predominate, one technical and the other…Bradical. The movie has been in the works for years, pored over by Fincher like a favorite fairytale from his childhood. But only now has computer-driven wizardry matured enough to meet the story’s challenges so unobtrusively. Likewise, Pitt, a comely actor, is no longer the golden surprise he was 18 years ago in Thelma & Louise. What he is, though, is a phenomenon of heightened celebrity. And that rarified status, combined with good grooming and exquisite digital effects care, produces the exact force field of fame needed to take our breath away in that first moment on screen when, rid of gray hair, Benjamin is bathed in light that honors the movie-star beauty Pitt is. Was. Is.
In his transient loveliness, the star’s character is rewarded with the company of an equally radiant woman. Or three. At first, when young/old Benjamin is a grotesque-looking abandoned newborn, he’s taken in by a kindly New Orleans nursing-home attendant (a tender Taraji P. Henson) who loves him as a son. Later, before he and Daisy meet up again in adulthood, the hero learns about sex and desire from a wise, worldly lady (Tilda Swinton, never better). By the time his love affair with Daisy crests, the pair are equals, and as a couple of blooming lovers, Blanchett’s limpid performance rises up to meet Pitt’s, petal for petal.
Yet Fincher has little time for assuring sweetness or audience caresses, not when Daisy’s future is physical decay while Benjamin’s is mental regression. Calling forth the flood waters of Katrina as a symbol of the inability to stop time is distracting, even presumptuous and brutal. Still, the point is made: Life is a tide, a flood even, against which youth, beauty, and even Brad Pitt have no magical powers. A-