When we’ve reached the end of a story that touches us deeply, we rarely move right on to the task of figuring out how or why our armor was breached. That kind of assessment might come later, but one of the deep and lasting pleasures of the movies — and of art in general — is allowing ourselves the freedom to surrender, to bask in that brief loss of self. That’s why a picture that’s almost moving — a picture you try hard to fall for as you’re watching it, only to find yourself failing to sink into its embrace — is often more of a disappointment than a hollow picture that fails on all counts.
David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a curious case in point: It’s so almost moving — a meticulously crafted mechanical bird — that it nearly feels like the real thing. Maybe what’s most affecting in “Benjamin Button” has less to do with the story or the acting than with watching a filmmaker stretch in a new direction, trying things he isn’t fully comfortable with and doesn’t exactly know how to pull off. Like Fincher’s other movies, “Benjamin Button” is ambitious and painstakingly constructed. But unlike those pictures, it’s devoid of macho showiness. There’s none of the “Are you man enough to take it?” posturing of “Fight Club” or “Se7en” or “Zodiac.” Fincher clearly wants to keep us suspended in a state of wonder as he explores the nature of love and loss.
But the illusion works only part of the time. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a loose adaptation of a compact and sharp short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man who’s born elderly and grows younger instead of older. Fincher and screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord have fleshed out and padded the story — you’d have to, in order to get a full-length movie out of it — and created a framing device that tangentially involves Hurricane Katrina. (Much of the movie is set, and was filmed, in New Orleans.) Brad Pitt stars as Benjamin, brought into the world in 1918 as a squalling infant with the face of an 80-year-old man. (In Fitzgerald’s story, Benjamin is full-grown at birth — biologically impossible, of course, but perfectly acceptable in the context of the story’s fantasy framework.) His mother dies in childbirth; his father (Jason Flemyng), horrified by the sight of this tiny, excessively wrinkled creature, drops him off in the street, where he’s rescued by a young woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works in a nursing home. “You are as ugly as an old post,” she tells the little mite, “but you’re still a child of God.”
Benjamin’s body grows up as his face becomes younger. In the movie’s early scenes, he has the visage of a 70-year-old tacked on a youngster’s body, which means he fits right in at the nursing home — he doesn’t look much different from the oldsters around him. And it’s there, during his unusual but happy childhood, that he meets the love of his life, a young girl who will one day, of course, be older than he is. Daisy (the young version is played by a preternaturally serene Elle Fanning; grown up, she’s Cate Blanchett) is a smart, willful girl who grows up to be a talented dancer. She and Benjamin lose track of each other over the years: He heads off on a tugboat adventure (the boozy, tattooed captain is played by a scrappy and likable Jared Harris) and ends up fighting in World War II; she trots off to Europe to do ballerina stuff. But the connection between them never withers, and when the time is right, they once again find each other.
That’s not where their story ends, but where it begins. “We’re meant to lose the people we love,” says a character in “Benjamin Button.” “How else would we know how important they are to us?” That’s the movie’s central idea summed up in a straightforward and rather poetic line of dialogue. But the movie structured around that line isn’t quite so straightforward. Fincher has constructed an elaborate, multilayered shell around the basic egg of his narrative: The movie opens with a backstory about a clockmaker who, in the year of Benjamin’s birth, builds a clock that runs backward. (It’s the man’s wistful acknowledgment that he’d like to turn back time, to prevent the death of the son he lost in the first world war.) Then comes the framing device: An aged and dying woman (it’s Blanchett, beneath some pretty realistic-looking age makeup) reflects back on her life from her hospital bed as her daughter (played by Julia Ormond) reads from a journal, filled with secrets that her mother has kept safe for many years. And then there’s the story of Benjamin, and of Benjamin and Daisy, which spans most of the 20th century and spills into the 21st.
Nothing in “Benjamin Button” happens casually or without a reason. And maybe that’s why, even though it offers us much to marvel over, it sparks little magic: The effect, ultimately, is one of applied whimsy. Shot by Claudio Miranda, with production design by Donald Graham Burt, the picture is certainly lovely to look at. Aside from serving up some romantic European and Russian settings, Miranda and Burt capture the sepia-toned coziness of Benjamin’s New Orleans childhood, as well as the freshness and optimism of the home Benjamin and Daisy build together in the early 1960s. Fincher devises a few lovely sequences, including one in which Daisy performs an impromptu outdoor ballet: The misty night is her painted backdrop, the singing of crickets her accompaniment. Fincher conjures, intentionally or otherwise, some of the dreaminess of Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes.” And he does pull off a devastating final scene, using a single vivid image to capture the essence of love and loss. (It’s the movie’s proper ending, even though Fincher has to tie up numerous other loose ends before the credits roll.)
Yet it’s telling that the most effective ideas in “Benjamin Button” are also the simplest ones. This is an elaborate, epic fantasy, one that operates on the false principle that more is always more. (Even Alexandre Desplat’s score, heavy on oh-so-sensitive piano tinkling, tries way too hard.) And Fincher’s big dreams make the actors’ jobs more difficult: Henson is lovely as Benjamin’s sensible, affectionate adoptive mother, and Tilda Swinton shows up briefly to play a lonely aristocrat — she’s crisp, efficient and affecting. Blanchett’s Daisy is stunning to look at, and yet a bit too cool: Her skin is almost magically luminous, like a delicate paper lantern lit from within. But her performance could use a little more fire, considering she’s one crucial half of a timeless, supposedly passionate love story.
Pitt has better control over his character, and he’s attuned to the inherent mournfulness of the story Fincher is trying to tell. (Maybe he’s even more attuned to it than Fincher is.) Benjamin Button is perpetually an outsider looking in. He lives in a world where people are constantly aware that youth is drifting away from them — but it’s the very thing that’s coming to claim him, a future that’s just as debilitating as old age.
Pitt is generally at his best when he’s not working too hard at acting, when he allows himself to relax into a snapshot of casual, good-looking American style. But he’s often very touching here; his performance is a quiet, interior one — he plays Benjamin as a man who observes more than he participates. Even though “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” rarely amounts to much more than a series of magic tricks, now and then it does hit a beat of perfect synchronicity. Pitt’s Benjamin reaches the peak of his adult beauty in the early- to mid-1960s, just as the British are invading and the Beach Boys are driving kids wild by surfin’ USA. At one point, he and Daisy, a young couple just starting out, dance in their sparsely furnished living room as the Beatles perform on television. Pitt’s Benjamin is just the right age to enjoy the youthquake of the ’60s, an era he would have missed if he weren’t aging in reverse. As he dances in that living room with his beautiful young lover, we see intimations of the boyishness he’ll grow into. With that easy smile and that crop of blondish hair, he offers a vision of the beautiful baby he’ll become.