Thursday, December 25, 2008

THE REVERSE BE MY LOT

Despite major problems, Button holds

Posted on Thu, Dec 25, 2008 at 4:00 AM

****
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Jason Flemyng, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond
Director: David Fincher
WorkNameSort: Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The
Our Rating: 4.00

Youth is wasted on the young, it's true, but according to the new film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, youth can be wasted by anyone who has it to spare.

David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) directs this jazz-age adaptation of the 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but fans of the source material will be surprised to find that only the concept ' a man born as a feeble senior ages backward ' remains. In place of Fitzgerald's flawed and socially rejected Benjamin, Fincher creates an observant and simple character who lets life's adventures take him where they must. This Button could be Forrest Gump's cousin, and the film, penned by Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, follows the same basic trajectory as the Tom Hanks hit: an accepting mama (Hustle & Flow's exuberant Taraji P. Henson), a flighty Southern love interest (Cate Blanchett in an ill-fitting role), a hard-drinking mentor and a peculiar soul detached enough to mosey through any situation.

A gentle performance by Brad Pitt grounds the ambitious set pieces with a knowing comfort and piercing familiarity ' no amount of makeup, it seems, can buffer that deific face ' and Fincher's mature work behind the camera keeps the leaky cruise liner of a story chugging along.

In simplifying the epic life of Benjamin, however, major conflicts are tossed overboard that could've propelled Button into greatness. What of his complicated relationship with his weary father, presented here as an abandoner? Whereas Fitzgerald's Button was a canvas on which to paint all types of mortality fears and youthful desires, Pitt's character only occasionally considers his one-of-a-kind existential dilemma and, even then, it's with mild concern. Transplanting a life of experience and wisdom into a body with new blood is one of mankind's greatest wishes, but Pitt's Button only rewards his long-awaited vitality by having great sex with beautiful partners. That would certainly be the first thing most people would do with such a gift, but hopefully not the only thing.

The picture's ham-handed framing device ' Benjamin's elderly, hospital-bound wife and the daughter who never knew him reading from his journal in a New Orleans hospital in the hours before Katrina strikes ' nearly destroys the film's delicate suspension of disbelief. It's as if these sections were filmed by an entirely different filmmaker. The scenes are unwelcome and oafishly imposed on the rest of the movie, and if that doesn't scream 'studio executives,â?� nothing does.

It's a testament to Fincher and Pitt's work that an entertaining film arrives safely to port. Fincher is utterly fearless; there's no special effect he can't weave gracefully into the fabric of a film (the hobbled, 80-year-old Pitt is jaw-dropping to watch). The former music-video visionary comes of age with Button in the same way fellow next-gen auteur Christopher Nolan did this summer with The Dark Knight and Danny Boyle with Slumdog Millionaire. Watching fresh and groundbreaking directors channel their craft into broad crowd- pleasers is like witnessing the hands of a clock move in the opposite direction ' thrilling and endlessly curious.

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