- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has everything a great holiday film needs. It’s got big-name stars - with talent, too - special effects that will amaze the young and old, the prestige of being based on a classic work of literature, a story meant to both entertain and move.

The only thing missing is the most important element - soul.

Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Benjamin Button” follows the fantastic life of its title character from birth to death. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918 New Orleans with a very odd malady: He’s a tiny baby in the body of an old man. The birth kills his mother, and his heartbroken father (Jason Flemyng) abandons the child on the doorstep of an old-age home.

Fortunately, he’s taken in and raised with love by the formidable woman who runs the place, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). The home already is filled with an assortment of misfits, so the creaky young Benjamin fits in just fine. As he grows up, it soon becomes apparent that he’s also growing down - the boy ages normally mentally, but in reverse physically.

It becomes particularly poignant when Benjamin falls in love. From the moment he lays eyes on Daisy (played in childhood by Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota, and in adulthood by Cate Blanchett) Benjamin is never the same. His life is an eventful one - he’s a sailor first in New Orleans, then in Russia; he fights in World War II; and he finally takes over the Button business when his wayward father realizes what a remarkable man Benjamin has become - but he never stops dreaming of Daisy.

When they first meet, her mother scolds Benjamin for playing with her in private, not realizing the two are the same age. This lifelong unrequited love finally is satisfied when the two match up physically, but not for long. Daisy continues to age, while Benjamin gets younger, and the relationship seems doomed yet again.

The pair live their lives against the backdrop of some of the century’s most interesting events. Daisy dances for ballet choreographer George Balanchine in Manhattan, then in the Broadway debut of “Carousel” before moving on to Paris and Russia, where she is the first American to dance for the Bolshoi Ballet.

The tale of a man born with a disability who never stops pursuing his love through the storied world of the 20th century might seem familiar - it was told already in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.”

The similarities aren’t merely superficial. Queenie is just like Forrest’s mom, a devoted woman who’s never at a loss for a lesson delivered banally: “Benjamin, we’re meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?” In fact, Eric Roth wrote both films, and he has updated that classic motherly line “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” into this film’s simpler, “You never know what’s coming for you.”

Like “Forrest Gump,” “Benjamin Button” uses the latest technology to great effect. The audience at a recent advance screening practically gasped when they saw the hunky Mr. Pitt made to look 18 again. Miss Blanchett doesn’t need any help to look fabulous, but she’s just as mesmerizing as Mr. Pitt when she’s transformed into a young woman. Both actors, as well as the big supporting cast, provide plenty of emotion beneath the makeup and effects.

Both movies, though, have big hearts without souls. The lessons they want to teach - about the staying power of love and the ridiculousness of prejudice - are imparted in the most hackneyed way. “Benjamin Button” is nearly three hours long, but for all that time, we learn little about these extraordinary people’s inner lives.

David Fincher, with films such as “Fight Club” and “Se7en,” showed himself to be one of our most original directors. “Benjamin Button” is certainly interesting visually - but as Forrest’s mom will tell you, it’s what’s inside the box that counts.


TITLE: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

RATING: PG-13 (Brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking)

CREDITS: Directed by David Fincher. Written by Eric Roth, with a story by Mr. Roth and Robin Swicord, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes

WEB SITE: benjaminbutton.com

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