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Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

Pushing the wrong button

Director David Fincher is probably best known for his films "Seven" and "Fight Club." His star in both was Brad Pitt, whose iconic turn as an anticonsumerism terrorist in "Fight Club" was so sensational that it inspired an entire generation of men to go out and by maroon faux-leather jackets.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Rating: (2 out of 5)
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Dirty "old" man: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" © 2008 PARAMOUNT PICTURES CORPORATION AND WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: David Fincher
Running time: 167 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 7, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Fincher and Pitt are reunited again, with high expectations in "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button," a nearly three-hour-long adaptation of a brisk F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. This should have alarm bells going off already, but let's not mince words here: The only thing "curious" about "Benjamin Button" is how the director of "Fight Club" has managed to make a film this dull and tame and sappy and vanilla.

Maybe Fincher, like the protagonist of "Fight Club," has another personality inside his head that takes over sometimes. That personality would clearly be Frank Darabont ("The Green Mile," "The Majestic"), because Fincher's new film offers the same feeble-minded magic realism as that director: a rich smorgasbord of cheesy life lessons and pasty bromides.

"Benjamin Button" begins with an old woman, near death, telling her daughter about the good old days, and a clockmaker (Elias Koteas) who made a clock that ran backward. Then she has her daughter read aloud to her from the diary of one Benjamin Button (Pitt): His life story is told in flashbacks, beginning with the night of his birth in New Orleans in 1918. After his mother dies in childbirth, Ben's father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), recoils in horror at the sight of the infant, which has the wrinkled, dried-up body of an old man.

Thomas leaves the baby on the steps of an old folks' home, where a kind caregiver, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), decides to raise the child, no matter what he may look like. Ben grows up in an old man's body, but with the mind of a child, surrounded by affectionate oldsters. Around age 7 (or 70), he meets Daisy (Elle Fanning), who treats him just like any other kid, and he develops a crush on her.

As Ben grows up, he becomes younger and stronger. He goes to work on a tugboat, piloted by Captain Mike (Jared Harris), a drunken Irish sailor (cliche alarm bells ringing now), and eventually travels to Murmansk, where he meets a diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton) and has an affair, before getting caught up in World War II. Returning to New Orleans after the war, he meets Daisy, now an adult (and played by Cate Blanchett) and a successful ballerina, working in New York City and Europe. Ben, much younger now, pursues her, and the two have an on-off romance that lasts their entire lives. (No points for guessing who that old woman in the hospital is.)

The cast turn in fairly likable performances, working mightily to make us buy the outlandish nature of the film's premise, but "Benjamin Button" remains a curiously unmoving affair. It goes all over the world and spans eight decades — and sure takes its time doing so — but you wait in vain for some reason to care about any of it. It's all quite tasteful and meaningful, in a Hallmark-greeting-card kind of way, but entirely devoid of passion.

A big part of the problem is the main character — there's no there, there. Benjamin Button is a blank — almost entirely devoid of personality. He's a character defined by his condition — aging backward — and little else. It's no surprise whatsoever to find "Forrest Gump" screenwriter Eric Roth's name in the credits, and he serves up the same kind of "holy innocent" here.

Worse is how the film feels like some endless, rambling Abe Simpson tall tale: "Back in the old days, we used to throw moon pies at the flappers; they were only a nickel, and come to think of it, life is just like a nickel — you always wish it was a dime. Now where was I?" It's crammed full of enough quirky folk, magical coincidences and aw-shucks "wisdom" to make even Lasse Halstrom ("Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules") choke on his own bile (worst of which is the hummingbird that mysteriously appears when characters pass away).

About the only selling point this film has is its stripteaselike pleasure of watching Brad Pitt peel off layer after layer of geezer makeup until he becomes the hunk of today, or better still, the CGI-restored hottie of his youth, circa "Thelma and Louise." ("My God, look at you. You're perfect!" gasps Daisy.)

Ultimately, after three hours of anecdotes and pygmies and tattooed sailors and sassy negro mammies and the guy who gets struck by lightning seven times, the only thing "Benjamin Button" has to say is: You know what? A life lived backward is pretty much the same as a life lived forward.

Rrrright. If this film actually picks up any Oscars, I may just have to shoot myself in despair.

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