“Curious” is right. David Fincher’s latest takes its title, its gimmick, and little else from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backward from old age to infancy, but it’s as beautifully crafted a film as 2008 has produced, an exquisitely shot modern fairy tale spanning most of the 20th century and the troubled beginnings of the 21st. Realized through old-fashioned camera mastery and newfangled special effects, it’s a stunning technical accomplishment, but one seemingly designed only to broadcast banal sentiments, when it says anything at all. Benjamin Button opens with its best bit: a prelude involving the construction of an elaborate, unusual clock. That too feels right for this gorgeously mechanical epic. But at least a clock tells time.
Set largely in New Orleans, Button is told in flashback as a dying elderly woman (Cate Blanchett) attempts to share some hidden chapters of her life with her daughter (Julia Ormond) as Hurricane Katrina closes in on the city. That requires sharing the story of the backward-aging Benjamin Button, a special-effects creation who begins as an elderly infant, turns into a child with a wrinkly CGI version of Brad Pitt’s head, then gradually becomes Pitt himself. Born at the tail-end of World War I, then raised in an old folks’ home by adoptive mother Taraji P. Henson—an arrangement that opens the door for at least a little bit of commentary about race relations in the South, though the film doesn’t see fit to supply any—Button should get a unique perspective on life from his unique condition. Instead, it apparently keeps his eyes wide and his mind set to “naïf” as he wanders through the decades and an on-again, off-again relationship with the restless Blanchett. (The script comes from Eric Roth, who would probably by accused of borrowing too liberally from Forrest Gump if he hadn’t written that too.)
At times, particularly in the film’s unavoidably heart-tugging final hour, Fincher’s visual mastery and Pitt’s charisma almost compensate for a gimmick in search of a meaning. The more time Fincher gives viewers with Button, the thinner the character grows. We see an old man discovering sex and a young one dealing with mortality and loss, but the film never lets the audience take its eyes off him and see its storybook America through his eyes. The sorrows of his changing face remain as distant as the digital code that created them.