"The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" would seem to have everything going for it - major stars, an enormous budget, and a conceit that can't be beat. However, in the end it's that very conceit that hamstrings an otherwise wondrous piece of movie-making.
Fincher's characters tend to be psychos, paranoiacs, obsessives, some of whom struggle vainly against the darkness in their own souls, but many others who have embraced it. Benjamin Button is none of the above, and that's perhaps his problem. Button, born "under unusual circumstances" in 1918 New Orleans, spends his early life literally surrounded by death, raised, as he is, by an orderly in a home for the elderly. As a prematurely old man himself (an effect achieved by fantastic MOCAP work from Pitt), perhaps it's not surprising that as he grows into a body with which he may truly engage the world, he is more content to observe appreciably.
Now, this may be true to the spirit of the character, but unfortunately for Fincher and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, it doesn't make for very interesting cinema. At a recent screening, Roth referred to Button's character as the "anti-Gump", a classification that seemed both apt and problematic. This film will certainly earn comparisons to Robert Zemeckis' modern classic(also written by Roth), but where that film had a truly fascinating central character, who experienced as many mistakes and tragedies as victories and happiness, Fincher and Roth's protagonist is a cipher. There's a telling sequence around the middle of the film, where Button, by now a merchant seaman holed up in a dingy hotel in Murmansk, strikes up a relationship with a bored wife of a minor British official (Tilda Swinton). Unable to sleep, they meet each night for tea and good conversation (and later, sex). But instead of letting us hear what those conversations are about, he simply creates a montage, set to music, of various meetings fading into one another. By the time Swinton's character departs the film, we know next to nothing new about Benjamin other than that he has trouble sleeping and likes hot tea. The fact is that even Swinton's character, on screen for perhaps fifteen minutes, is more engaging. It's a frustrating glimpse of what might have been, had the filmmakers chosen to put the character before the gimmick, instead of the other way around.
Which brings us to Cate Blanchett. As Daisy, whom Benjamin meets as a young girl and who grows into a luminously beautiful and troubled ballet dancer, Blanchett shines as brightly as she ever has on screen. Unlike Benjamin, Daisy is not content to simply accept whatever life throws her way - she has dreams and attempts to act on them, and does her best to lead a normal, interesting life. Benjamin, passive as always, must quietly observe as she grows out of the playmate of his "youth" and into a somewhat headstrong woman who nonetheless possessed of enormous potential. His loyalty pays off, though, when circumstances bring them together again at a time when they both happen to be the same age - a fleeting moment, and one they will cherish. But again, the relationship between couple and audience is one-sided, because while we can see why Daisy would wish to return to the rock-steady loyalty of Benjamin, it's unclear what he feels about her other than a regard (she's certainly lovely enough). We are told in rather soggy voice-over narration (spread throughout the film) that Daisy is "the most beautiful person I'd ever seen", but that's all we'll get.
And so it goes, for nearly three hours. We cut frequently, and irritatingly, back to a modern-day hospital in New Orleans, where a dying Daisy asks her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from Benjamin's diary as Hurricane Katrina pounds on the windows. There's something being said in these scenes about regret and the passage of time, but the appealing Ormond's character is one-note, and Blanchett seems nearly suffocated under pounds of old age makeup. It's from this diary whence springs Benjamin's narration, but, as Mr. Roth pointed out, Gump this ain't. Suffice it to say that the budget is up there on screen as we go on this strange trip through the twentieth century with Brad Pitt as our guide. A possibly unintentional (I doubt it) laugh arises mid-film when Benjamin finally reaches something around Pitt's own age. He strides into a garage in the mid-50's, decked out in leather jacket and shades, and whips a tarp off a motorcycle, on which he speeds out to the harbor to do some bare-chested sailing on a boat he builds himself (the shades remain on his head). It's a knowing wink to the wish-fulfillment of the casting - who wouldn't want their old crotchety husband to get younger and younger until they looked like Brad Pitt? - and a clever way to underscore the underlying tragedy of the situation. Sure, he looks like Brad Pitt in "Fight Club", "Se7en", "Thelma & Louise", but eventually he's going to look like Brad Pitt in "Cutting Class", and then Brad Pitt in seventh grade, and finally Brad Pitt as a toddler, and that's not so sexy.
Pitt does a fine job. It's a pity that Fincher, who has used him to such great effect twice before, didn't let him cut loose. Instead this is his most low-key performance since Meet Joe Black, in which he played Death, who was really just a nice young man curious about the world. Come to think of it, that's pretty much all that Benjamin Button is, and, if nothing else, he knows more about death than just about anybody around. Too bad that a film that means to affirm life turns out to be rather lifeless.