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.