Wistful, melancholic, steeped in a sense of impermanence and looming mortality, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is not a movie one could have predicted from the maker of “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.” David Fincher’s haunting and uneven picaresque fable is a radical reimagining of a fanciful, minor F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. It tells the tall tale of an infant who is born as an old man—tiny but suffering all the infirmities of an 80-year-old—who lives his life in reverse, becoming younger with each passing year until he achieves real infancy at the end of his life.
Benjamin (Brad Pitt) gets his last name from his button-manufacturing father (Jason Flemyng) who, horrified by the sight of his bizarre baby, abandons him on the steps of a New Orleans old-age home, where he is raised by the loving black employee Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). He may only be a toddler, but he feels right at home among the old folks, being a balding child who wears glasses and is confined to a wheelchair. At this stage of the story it’s only Pitt’s heavily made-up head we’re seeing (digitally imposed on other bodies); it will be a while before he begins to resemble the matinee idol we know.
Pitt’s Benjamin, with a lazy Southern accent, narrates this two-hour-and-40-minute tale. If his ruminations evoke distant echoes of “Forrest Gump” it’s because Eric Roth wrote both screenplays. “Button” is, among other things, a love story, but it’s in no hurry to let you know it. Indeed, for more than an hour—from the end of World War I to the outbreak of World War II—Fincher meanders without ever achieving total traction. He keeps returning to the present-day, less-than-inspired framing device in which an old woman, dying in a New Orleans hospital as Hurricane Katrina approaches, listens to her daughter (Julia Ormond) read Benjamin’s journals.
And a long and winding tale it is. Along the way one has to put up with some tiresome adventures as the teenage Benjamin (who looks to be in his late 60s) sets sail with a drunken old tugboat captain (a blustery, scenery-chewing Jared Harris). But then, with the arrival of Tilda Swinton as a married, upper-class Englishwoman, the movie snaps to life. She seduces Benjamin in a wintry Russian hotel, and the movie seems to shift from the elegiac past tense to a vivid present. Not coincidentally, it’s the first time Pitt is fully recognizable: he gets to act with his whole body. The great love of Benjamin’s life, however, is not Swinton’s Englishwoman. It’s the little girl Alice, whom he meets as a child in New Orleans and who grows up to be a headstrong ballet dancer played by Cate Blanchett. Benjamin, now looking merely middle-aged, re-encounters her in New York, where she is hanging with a bohemian crowd and gushing about Agnes de Mille.
The poignance of this love story lies in its impossibility. She will grow older as he grows younger; their daughter will grow up as he returns to childhood. Only for one magical moment will these lovers share the same age. Yet for all of Fincher’s formidable filmmaking—this is one gorgeously shot and designed movie—I was never convinced that the spoiled, sometimes abrasive Alice and the gentle, philosophical Benjamin were a good romantic fit. As compelling as Blanchett and Pitt are—he gives one of the subtlest, most touching performances of his career—their characters don’t quite mesh here.
In another movie this would be a fatal flaw, yet the overall impact of “Benjamin Button” is greater than the sum of its parts. The metaphor of a life lived backward is strangely haunting. Benjamin’s saga is singular yet universal: anyone who has contemplated his own mortality will find it hard not to be moved by Fincher’s evocation of the fickleness of fate. Lyrical, original, misshapen and deeply felt, this is one flawed beauty of a movie.