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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/22/2008 6:33:39 PM ET 2008-12-22T23:33:39
REVIEW

A Southern naïf meanders through a bizarre and unusual life story, one that includes encounters with legendary figures, a childhood sweetheart who sees the world but then returns home to bear him a child out of wedlock, a free-floating metaphor about the unpredictability of existence, and a devoted mother who provides aphorisms about how you never know what life is going to send your way.

Screenwriter Eric Roth is no doubt hoping that you won’t notice how many of his ideas from “Forrest Gump” have made it into his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” And even fans of that earlier film may find themselves overburdened; “Gump” director Robert Zemeckis isn’t exactly known for his light touch, but next to “Button” man David Fincher, he’s practically Ernst Lubitsch.

Told in flashback by the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett), we learn the story of Benjamin (Brad Pitt), who was born a wizened old baby with arthritis and glaucoma and then spent the rest of his life growing younger. Abandoned by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng), Benjamin is left at the doorstep of an old-age home, where he is taken in by nurse Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who raises the elderly infant.

Along the way, Benjamin meets young Daisy and is taken with her blue eyes — and that’s pretty much all the movie has to offer to explain a relationship that survives World War II, Daisy’s stint as a Broadway dancer in the original production of “Carousel,” and the couple’s separate globe-trotting jaunts to Russia.

We’re supposed to believe, incidentally, that Daisy’s daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) never knew until this deathbed conversation that Daisy was the only American invited to dance with the Bolshoi — despite the fact that Daisy spent her later years teaching dance. Isn’t that the sort of credit you’d include in the brochure? And if, incidentally, acting is all about listening, Ormond deserves some kind of award for having so much exposition lobbed at her both here and in “Che.”

The special effects that make “Benjamin Button” possible in its present state are certainly impressive — Pitt’s face is grafted onto various smaller bodies during Benjamin’s growing-up (or is that growing-down?) years, and it comes off way more convincingly than a similar attempt to put Kate Bosworth’s mug onto a female surfer’s skull in the best-forgotten “Blue Crush.”

Video: Brad Pitt While director Fincher has accomplished any number of technical marvels in the film, “Benjamin Button” lacks a soul; it almost feels like the big, sweeping emotional moments are being hit out of a sense of duty and not because the filmmaker really believes in them. (If Steven Spielberg had directed the movie, I might still have hated it, but I no doubt would have caught myself getting emotionally swept up in it from time to time.)

The performances are serviceable — Tilda Swinton steals the show in an all-too-brief appearance as one of Benjamin’s lovers — and the art direction is gorgeous, but I never connected with this movie for a second. Even the score was off, with the talented Alexandre Desplat writing his first obvious and treacly bit of music; showing an adorable 10-year-old boy suffering from dementia should be moving enough without a bombastic string section nudging things along.

When “Benjamin Button” pauses to make the occasional observation about life and death, and taking advantage of each moment, it gets close to achieving some kind of resonance. For the most part, unfortunately, it’s little more than a nearly three-hour reminder that we begin and end our lives in diapers.

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