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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Full Circles of Life
by John P. McCarthy

A man whose body ages in reverse sounds like a gimmicky premise for a movie. Fortunately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, director David Fincher's elegant rendering of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, is anything but by virtue of being technically flawless and deeply moving.

At first blush, the narrative may not appear to match the dazzling craftsmanship on display, yet the film's patience and restraint are among its greatest attributes. Benjamin Button is less concerned with the extraordinary -- the peaks and valleys in an unusual life -- than the wonderful ordinariness of the totality. Rather than a nearly three-hour stream of syrupy Americana, the movie gains a cumulative power that pushes it beyond the condition of a quaint, beautifully designed oddity. 

Girded by seamless digital technology, Brad Pitt plays the title character. Born in 1918 in New Orleans with the physical attributes of a shriveled octogenarian, Button grows outwardly younger as the decades pass while his mind and spirit maturate. In addition to terrific makeup design and the brilliant computer manipulation of his face and body, Pitt's quietly magnetic performance and Alexandre Desplat's enthralling score augment the film's lyrical profundity.

Cate Blanchett's presence as Button's romantic soul mate is another asset. So too is the muting of any manipulative sentimentality, which is all the more impressive given how the film tackles nothing less than the themes of time and mortality. The story is framed by an elderly woman lying in a Big Easy hospital room telling her grown daughter about the love of her life. Death and Hurricane Katrina are both fast approaching.

Soon after being born, Benjamin is abandoned by his wealthy father on the steps of a nursing home run by an African-American woman called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). She raises him as her own. At age seven, he meets Daisy, the granddaughter of a resident. He subsequently travels the world on a tugboat, survives World War II, and during a romantic Russian interlude has an affair with the wife of the British Trade Minister (Tilda Swinton).


Meanwhile Daisy, played by a radiant Blanchett, has become a ballet dancer in Paris. Fate and fickleness keep them apart. During the 1950s, Benjamin -- gradually gaining Pitt's movie star mien -- morphs into a womanizing motorcycle rider. In the 1960s, he and Daisy finally enjoy romantic bliss. They experience a bohemian form of domesticity (funded by the fortune his guilty father left him) that results in a baby girl. 

The parallels with 1994's crowd-pleasing Oscar-winner Forrest Gump are blatant. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay for both films. Forrest Gump boils down to the folksy wisdom of its signature line: "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get." Benjamin Button on the other hand, while containing an equivalent nugget -- "You never know what's coming for you" -- gains more depth by expressing a subtler lesson. Namely, that the sum of a person's life isn't divisible into discrete units of any kind. A life can't be broken down into pieces or moments and judged in segments, no matter how historically significant they may be. An individual must be considered in toto; it's the entire passage that comprises a person's value. 

Button is a less specific (and less huggable) character than Tom Hanks' idiot savant Gump. He's a cipher; a man who can fade into the background during any era. His imprint is faint. But his blankness, however pleasing to the eye, is integral to the movie's import. Benjamin Button is not fixated on one man or any particular point in his journey, even his birth or death. Its essence is his journey, the passage itself.

In his previous film Zodiac, Fincher's fascination with the thrill of hunting an elusive serial killer struck me as more frustrating than tantalizing. There is no danger of a lack of narrative resolution here. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes full circle. As in Zodiac, the inherent mystery isn't solved and yet the mystery is what matters. Fincher gives free reign to his compulsion for process and procedure while presenting a story that has a definite beginning, middle and end.

In this formal way, Benjamin Button more closely resembles Fincher's earlier and more harshly satisfying films Seven and Fight Club. Along with its poignant evocation of the joys and sorrows of love, it conveys a kind of Zen-like certainty that patterns, symmetrical or not, are discernible in every human life.

(Release by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for brief violence, sexual content, language and smoking.)

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