A David Fincher movie is not hastily made, nor is it hastily watched. His movies range from mindbends (The Game, Seven) to heavy thrillers (Panic Room, Zodiac), and they do not end quickly. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his first love story, but it is as ponderous, weighty and ambitious as his darker fare. Unfortunately, that means it's too long. Still, despite the running time, it's a good movie, and worth seeing.
The main character Button (Brad Pitt), for some reason, was born as an old man, and aged in reverse, finally dying 84 years later as an infant. It's a beautiful, and well-made, and at times remarkably sweet film, but its trope of seeing the world passively through a man-child's eyes -- which screenwriter Eric Roth already explored in Forrest Gump -- does not sustain the long running time. And Pitt and Blanchett's aging is handled inconsistently. Brad Pitt's character ages backwards, Pitt first voicing a CGI child with the features of an old man, and later playing himself, caked in decreasing amounts of old-age makeup, as the wrinkles on his face and grey in his hair gradually disappear. However, distractingly and inexplicably, Blanchett seems to age forward only in fits and starts.
Benjamin Button, abandoned as a baby by a horrified father who came just in time to see his wife die in childbirth, and raised by a black old-age home keeper, grows up in prewar New Orleans, then leaves to go to sea on a tugboat, has a hotel romance in Russia with a middle-aged English diplomat's wife, fights a German sub in World War II, and has two decades of missed connections with Blanchett until they finally unite when they are both the same age, coming from opposite directions. The film is framed by hospital bedside scenes with Julia Ormond reading the story of Button to her dying mother, Blanchett in old-age makeup, out of Button's diary.
Pitt's two love interests in the movie are played by Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, and it's an interesting casting decision. The two are very similar: actresses whose extraordinarily high cheekbones and sharp faces can be used either for beauty or for authority, but far more often the latter.
Swinton is, perhaps, the more interesting of the two, because she is rarely allowed to be beautiful, and even here her revelation of beauty is halting and fragile. Though Swinton was cast in a lover's role in Jim Jarmusch's uneven Broken Flowers, this is really her romantic coming out. Following her recent roles as the White Witch in Narnia and the villainous lawyer in Michael Clayton, it's about time. And she does a lovely job bringing the sweetness out of her initially striking, almost harsh, appearance, a cutting drunken upper-class middle-aged British woman profoundly displeased with her life, who slowly warms to the childlike Button, who wants nothing more than to listen. Their hotel dalliance is the best section of the movie.
Blanchett's sections are more difficult. She starts out too broad, as she starts playing her character in her late teens as a chattery, lithe free spirit. As she ages, she grows calmer -- grows up -- and comes back to Pitt after a wait to rival When Harry Met Sally, and at this point their chemistry is lovely. Her character's development is really the center of the movie, even more than that of the inert Pitt, whose character doesn't do very much beyond the central trope of aging backwards. He's at his best when he's with her, and she's at her best when she's with him.
But her aging doesn't visually match his. He keeps looking younger, but she goes years without looking older. Her body and skin are remarkable, and she has no trouble appearing 20. The problem is that she looks nearly the same for the next 20 years of her character's life. While Pitt is obviously aging backwards, her cheekbones are just as jutting, her skin just as unblemished, as ever. This is even more distracting during the hospital cutaways, when the beautiful Julia Ormond plays a 40-year-old with all the crow's feet and wrinkles a woman of her age might expect.
Ormond's performance is a true pleasure, because we have seen so little of her. After her lead role in Smilla's Sense of Snow, one of the true hidden pleasures of the '90s, and one that might have launched her to a career at least rivaling that of countrywoman and fellow dark-haired beauty Helena Bonham Carter, she took several years off. She worked extremely sporadically in the late '90s and early 2000's -- her mid-30s, what might have been prime years for her career -- and only recently returned to frequent work onscreen. She doesn't have much to do with her role, mostly reaction shots to the story she just read and we just saw, but she does a valiant job keeping the scenes from grinding the movie to a halt. (Billy Crudup couldn't do the same with the deathbed framework in Big Fish.)
Pitt is miscast as Button, though he does well enough. As in Interview with the Vampire, his New Orleans accent comes and goes, and he really isn't at his best playing a passive center of attention. He's no Tom Hanks, in other words. His best performances come when he's a little on edge -- as in Fincher's Seven -- or completely bonkers, as in Twelve Monkeys or Snatch. Here, he doesn't have enough to do, and he struggles to hold the movie together without a way to chew the scenery.
One of the minor pleasures of an epic movie is that the length permits a very large, well-developed cast. And the casting, other than Pitt, is very good. In addition to the above, Taraji P. Henson does a lovely job as Button's surrogate mother, Jason Flemyng a good job as Button's blood father, and Jared Harris has fun playing the tattooed Irish tugboat captain. The acting is as professional as the visuals.
There's no big reveal and no final truth, though that's alright for a romance. It's a love story disguised as science fiction, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The movie wisely departs so radically from the slight, unsatisfying, and unromantic source material -- changing the time, place, plot, all characters but Benjamin, and even Benjamin's personality -- that it might as well have been based on Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World.
But it's too long. It uses Pitt's condition as a curiosity, a plot device, rather than a way of revealing insight into the nature of life, or love, or any of the movie's themes. The film packs its ambition into its visuals, not into its analysis or message. At nearly 3 hours, that's a little disappointing. It's an enjoyable movie for its cast alone, and it is very beautifully made, but it isn't quite what it hopes to be. However, on its own merits, it's good enough.