With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, director David Fincher sets aside the darkness and violence of Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac - the recurring themes that had earned him the mantle of Hollywood's reigning Prince of Darkness - and tries his hand at an emotional epic. This is a long, impeccably detailed, richly textured movie about a most unusual life, and although it's far from perfect, the sum of it achieves what Fincher set out to do in the first place: Make you blubber like a 6-year-old who just found his pet turtle lying belly-up.
They're not depressing tears, though. There is a profound but strangely comforting melancholy coursing throughout Benjamin Button, which has been expanded from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald by screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) into a humane and wistful meditation on the evanescent nature of things. "Nothing lasts. What a shame that is,'' a character laments. But in a delicate and touching manner that is new territory for Fincher, the movie argues that life's very ephemeralness makes it a treasure worth savoring.
As in Fitzgerald's story, the film's titular hero is born as a wrinkled prune of a baby, suffering from the sorts of ailments that would normally afflict an 80-year-old. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father (Jason Flemyng), a button manufacturer, is so horrified by his offspring that he briefly considers drowning him before abandoning him on the doorstep of a nursing home in 1918 New Orleans.
There, he finds an adoptive mother in Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse who works at the home who cannot bear children of her own. Queenie is not disturbed by Benjamin's admittedly ghastly appearance (there is something deeply disturbing about the sight of such an aged infant, the first but not last time the movie strikes a note of quiet, subtle horror) and embraces the feeble, sickly creature, assuming he doesn't have long to live.
But Benjamin doesn't merely survive; he starts getting younger with each passing year. At the age of 7, he looks like a doddering grandpa confined to a wheelchair. At 10, he is able to walk - barely - with the help of crutches. Mentally, he is as curious and alert as any ordinary child, and one of the things the movie beautifully observes is how easily he blends in with the rest of the residents at the nursing home. Like Benjamin, their bodies have betrayed them, but at least they're still alive, and that alone is its own kind of blessing.
The first hour of Benjamin Button, in which Benjamin is played by various child actors with Brad Pitt's heavily made-up head digitally imposed on their bodies, is also the film's weakest. You're constantly aware of the digital trickery afoot (Pitt's head often looks too big), which pulls you out of the story, and Benjamin's childhood is also the least interesting segment of his life, because the character does little other than observe. The warmth and whimsy of his early years feels manufactured: It's Forrest Gump territory.
But when Benjamin reaches young adulthood, looking not a day past 60, and leaves home to make his mark on the world, the film really takes off. His first extended affair, with a married British woman (Tilda Swinton) that blossoms over a period of time at a hotel in Russia, gives him his first taste of the incredible highs and dolorous pain of love. His wartime adventures aboard a tugboat, which has the unfortunate luck of crossing paths with a Nazi submarine, shows him the ugliness of violent, sudden death (a far different variety than the peaceful, quiet sort he witnessed on almost a daily basis in his childhood home).
But it's his life-spanning romance with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whom he's known since she was a little girl, that gives the film its emotional center. A talented ballet dancer who experiences great success on the New York stage, Daisy is far from a perfect match for Benjamin (one of the film's more refreshing aspects is that the two lovers aren't so obviously made for each other). But fate and happenstance keep bringing them together, until they finally surrender to their instincts.
Fincher takes his sweet time getting the story to this point (there's a wonderfully protracted sequence, a directorial tour de force, depicting the events leading up to an accident that could have been dispatched in a few seconds of screen time). And the steady pace pays off wondrously in the film's last hour. The older Benjamin gets, the handsomer and more striking he looks, but we're conscious of the wisdom and experience beneath that unwrinkled face, because the movie has taken the time to show us.
And as that face keeps getting younger, while everyone around him ages, the film achieves an uncommon level of tragic beauty. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie about the inevitability of death, but it is told from a perspective of peace and contentment, which renders it into a celebration of life and all its wonderful, horrible oddities.