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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A New American Classic?

Hollywood films rarely even attempt the sweep and heartbreak of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a bewitching, at times overpowering movie that seems likely to win about 50 Oscars. There aren’t actually that many Oscars to hand out, but I wouldn’t put it past the Academy to invent some new categories.

Based on but greatly expanded from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, the film by Fight Club director David Fincher proves that this gifted director can deploy all of his visual gifts to create a richly satisfying, emotionally engaging, and more than a bit schmaltzy old-time romance with heavy assistance from digital and makeup technology: as the title character, Brad Pitt is born as a feeble old man of about 80 and spends the entire film aging in reverse.

From the outset, the script by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth makes it ambitions clear: like the earlier movie, this one will make an attempt to say something about changes in American life using repetition, popular song cues, great leaps in time and space, and sheer epic length. Benjamin, born in New Orleans during the Armistice Day celebrations of 1918, loses his mother as he enters the world and is then lost by his father, who dumps him on a stairway because of his freakish appearance. The boy’s joints are calcified, his eyes obscured by cataracts.

The apparent tragedy of being born old, though, quickly begins to seem like a precious gift: How would you like to get healthier, stronger, and better-looking every day?

Raised in an old-folks home by a kindly black worker named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, who seems likely to get an Oscar nomination) and her gentleman friend, Benjamin struggles more than most babies to learn to walk, but finally throws his leg braces and crutches away in a moment reminiscent of Forrest’s sudden burst of running speed. The scenes in which a tiny, bald old man acts like a baby and looks like Brad Pitt are startling, sad, and funny, easily amazing enough to win the movie the visual effects Oscar and perhaps the makeup prize as well.

A boarder at the house teaches Benjamin piano, and he makes friends with a little girl named Daisy who is the granddaughter of another visitor to the house. In flashforwards to the present, Daisy is an old woman on her deathbed who is both sharing her memories with her daughter (Julia Ormond) and learning more about Benjamin as her daughter reads his diary to her.

The middle of the film is perhaps unnecessarily expansive as Benjamin, who has been on earth for about 20 years or so and looks about 60, takes a job on a tugboat presided over by an eccentric, drunk sailor, Capt. Mike (Jared Harris, another potential Oscar nominee, if only because of the showiness of the role), who isn’t that different from the acerbic but human Lt. Dan in Gump. After Pearl Harbor there is an exciting battle at sea, and on a stop in a Russian port Benjamin strikes up a warm friendship with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British diplomat. Though the woman seems like nothing more than a warm-up for the main romance of the movie with Daisy — we don’t get our first glimpse of a recognizable Cate Blanchett, who plays the character as an adult, until the second half — this relationship has a carefulness, a mystery, and a beauty about it that is one of the film’s many endearing elements. The Swinton character once tried to become the first woman to swim the English Channel, but gave up within a couple of miles of Calais. She carries the regret with her like a limp.

Meanwhile, Daisy grows up and becomes a ballet dancer, which gives Fincher a reason to show off exquisite period visions of New York and Paris, but on a return to New Orleans in the 1950s — years go by fast in this movie — she and Benjamin don’t quite click, even though this is the first time they’ve ever been approximately the right age for each other. One weakness in the story is that there really isn’t a strong reason for them to be apart, no real clash of personality, no third party who registers.

The overarching themes, though, of death and loss and a wish for time to flow backwards (achingly captured in the film’s parable of a clockmaker who loses his son in World War I and makes a clock that goes in reverse) give Benjamin Button the feel of a new American classic.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

Starring: Brad Pitt, Michael Sheen, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Taraji P. Henson

4 stars/ 4

167 minutes/Rate PG-13