With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, director David Fincher, renowned for such hard-edged work as Fight Club and Zodiac asks us to leave cynicism at the door and walk in with a mind ready for cinema's wondrousness. That's a tall order.
There are a variety of challenges facing moviegoers with this year's crop of awards-season releases, but maybe the most unexpected comes from David Fincher.
With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the filmmaker renowned for such hard-edged work as Fight Club and Zodiac asks us to leave cynicism at the door and walk in with a mind ready for cinema's wondrousness. That's a tall order, made a little taller by screenwriter Eric Roth.
Taking from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story the name, the title character and his singular backward aging process (and little else), Roth fashions a tale with some basic resemblance to his Forrest Gump screenplay. An unusual, humble man (Brad Pitt) leads an extraordinary life, touched by historic moments and a woman he's loved since childhood (Daisy, who blossoms in Cate Blanchett's care).
Roth's repeated dipping into that previously used well is the biggest obstacle facing the audience. His framing device for the 20th-century period piece, in modern New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, also feels like it could've come from another movie.
Nevertheless, if you don't analyze too closely, Fincher can make magic. He begins with mind-blowing visual effects that transform Pitt from a small boy with all the infirmities of old age to the tall, fresh-faced stud of Thelma and Louise. The change is grounded by Pitt's firm grasp of the difference between Benjamin's perceived and actual age.
Then there's cinematography that seems torn from a storybook, and the sweet sentiment of Benjamin's dalliance with a married woman (Tilda Swinton). Also the cheerful crowd-pleasing of Benjamin's tugboat adventures with artistically minded skipper Jared Harris and a running gag involving a man repeatedly struck by lightning.
In lesser hands, this movie could be unbearably cutesy, and even in Fincher's it's remarkably slight. But as it dissipates like sea spray in your mind, it can leave a fine mist of feelings as dichotomous as its title character, a sense of melancholy firmly linked with hope and gratitude for the time we're given.