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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The march of time
Pitt conjurs up pathos
on
Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button is a cipher.
Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button is a cipher.

Brad Pitt has been aging gracefully, as Hollywood stars tend to do. He's closing in on 50, but the hair's still there (appears to be, anyway), and the jaw line's as strong as ever, the eyes as blue. He somehow manages to stay fit and trim while raising however many kids he's now signed up for, and it's been a pleasure to get older with him, lose that Thelma and Louise baby fat in the cheeks, absorb those body blows in Fight Club,. Pitt has been one of the sexiest men alive for so long that you start to take his looks for granted. It's part and parcel of who he is, his claim to fame.

Among other things, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gives us a peek at how bad things could get for Pitt someday. As the eponymous hero, a holy innocent borne aloft on the winds of time, he goes from womb to tomb, cradle to grave. Or is it tomb to womb? Slipping through a crack in the space-time continuum, his Benjamin is born old and gets younger every day, both physically and emotionally. When we first catch sight of him, in a New Orleans old folks' home where he's been abandoned by his horrified father, he looks like a homunculus, a foot-long grandpa.

And as each year passes, he gets a little spryer, graduating from a wheelchair to crutches to his first, uh, baby steps. Thanks to some absolutely amazing work with performance-capture, the movie is often mesmerizing in the early going, despite a story that has some trouble getting off the ground. It's been adapted from a tall tale written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but there wasn't much there to work with, and scriptwriter Eric Roth, who wrote Forrest Gump, sends Benjamin off on one of those only-in-the-movies lives. At 17, looking and feeling 65, the wayfarer heads out to sea, winding up in Murmansk, of all places.

Another holy innocent borne aloft on the winds of time, Forrest Gump nevertheless plugged into history - the rollicking postwar years, during which America tried to find its bearings. Benjamin Button doesn't really have that connection, even though he was born on Armistice Day and the movie wraps up with the flooding of New Orleans' Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. And this renders The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all the more curious. What's the movie trying to say other than it's always sad to grow old, no matter which direction you do it in? What exactly does Benjamin Button represent?

He remains a cipher throughout the movie, never quite reaching full personhood. But he does fall in love, with a little girl who becomes a woman, then a middle-aged woman, then an old woman, while Benjamin gets younger and younger. They meet in the middle, where Cate Blanchett does her best with a role that seems sketchy, a scriptwriter's conceit. This is supposed to be a grand love story - one for the ages, if you will. But it's a little difficult to tell what each of them falls in love with. Benjamin's love is so steadfast it makes him look like a bit of a simpleton.

Simpleton or not, Pitt comes up with a performance that keeps you thinking about life's transience, our utter frailty. He's never shown a lot of heart before, tends to do best with comedy. But he must have spent a lot of time contemplating his own mortality while making the movie, and he has moments of true pathos, where Benjamin seems inscrutably sad and wise. Playing someone who goes from his 80s to his teens has to be one of the great acting challenges, and Pitt hits all the marks, underplaying beautifully, his New Orleans accent flowing like a stream of molasses.

Director David Fincher is known for harder fare: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac. And he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with a picaresque fable. The colors, meant to evoke old photographs, are murky, yellowish. And the movie's just not very light on its feet. It's also very long, bringing home all too well the sense of time passing, death whispering to us from the next room. But there's a poignancy that the movie never entirely loses, thanks in part to its Twilight Zone premise. We start life in diapers and, often as not, finish it in them, so why bother to turn back time?

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