Ambitious ‘Button’ ultimately falters

Ben Raymond

At the beginning of 2008, if you had asked any critic or Oscar-watcher his or her pick for the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, I wager you’d have resoundingly heard “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

David Fincher’s long-anticipated magnum opus is an engrossing but deeply flawed picture which comes oh-so-close to greatness, yet crumbles atop a shoddy screen adaptation. And how painfully close it comes makes it all the more agitating.

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same title, the film chronicles the fantastic life of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man born with an inexplicable condition which causes him to age backwards.

Abandoned at birth, the child who appears “well into his eighties and on the way to the grave” is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the caretaker of a nursing home in New Orleans.

Benjamin grows up among the sick and dying of the home, witnessing the slow decay of old age while he himself becomes progressively younger. There he meets and falls in love with Daisy, the granddaughter of a wealthy patron of the home.

In his teens (looking like a man in his sixties), Benjamin joins the rough-and-tumble crew of a tugboat and sails far from New Orleans and Daisy. Aboard the ship he comes of age. He learns how to be a proper sailor and curse like one too.

It is years before Benjamin reunites with Daisy (played in her teen and adult years by Cate Blanchett), with whom he will share a lifelong love affair of great passion, and even greater loss.

Director Fincher (“Se7en,” “Fight Club”) is at the peak of his powers, lensing what can only be called a visual opera, full of grand photography and sweeping cinematic bravado.

Fincher is an unabashed maestro behind the camera, his film tip-toeing with tenderness and precision amidst its players. He directs in movements, much like a ballet – sometimes subtle and unspoken, other times bold and in crescendo.

Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is perhaps the highlight of the entire picture. Though shot in HD, Miranda’s compositions retain both the candle-like flicker and charm of celluloid photography and the piercing clarity of digital film.

The film glows, frame-by-frame, beginning to end. Color explodes and recedes acutely.

Very rarely is it kosher (and rarer still obligatory) to mention a film’s visual effects sorcery. But this is indeed the case with “Benjamin Button.”

Save “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Benjamin Button” boasts the best special effects of the decade. From the pitch-perfect panoramas and cityscapes to the seamlessly-mapped facial and corporal effects, it’s nothing short of a visual marvel.

The musical score from rising star Alexandre Desplat is yet another remarkable addition to the picture. Channeling Mendelssohn, Danny Elfman (and a bit of Paul Cantelon), Desplat’s compositions are whimsical and passionate. They brood and wander and turn the pages of the story.

Pitt delivers a fine turn as the titular hero. Though many have chalked up the quality of his performance to makeup, CGI wizardry and a sly Southern drawl, Pitt possesses a charisma unattainable by most actors.

Having said that, he perhaps depends too much on said charisma to carry his performance. There are indeed many a moment when he could showcase his talent but instead merely gives the “I’m-Brad-Pitt-so-you-best-be-melting” look.

Though his turn was certainly an admirable one, we’re left wondering what could have been had more effort been made to transform subject as well as appearance.

The same can be said of Blanchett. Unarguably one of the finest actresses of our day, she has become the standard of contemporary acting. We see “Blanchett” written across a poster or alight on a marquee and expect the unflinching tenacity and effortless elegance which has made her one of the all-time greats.

Over the course of the film, Blanchett makes only few, nearly imperceptible alterations to a character whose life is in relentless upheaval.

Her performance, however attractive, fails to achieve the level of tragedy demanded of her character. For whatever reason, the taste left in one’s mouth is too sweet for the film’s otherwise bitter palate.

Henson’s endearing performance as Queenie, Benjamin’s adopted mother, will likely land her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Typically forgettable turns from Tilda Swinton (“Burn After Reading”) and Julia Ormond round out the solid-yet-unsatisfying ensemble.

The bane of the film, the central and inescapable defect which arrests its would-be ascent to greatness, is its screenplay, written by Eric Roth.

Roth is usually anything but a blight – the man wrote “Forrest Gump,” “The Insider” and “Munich.”

First and foremost, Roth’s script takes its source material far, far too seriously. Fitzgerald’s short story is a fantasy, and it knows it. It’s honest. It’s accessible and impacting without resorting to the clumsy smoke and mirrors Roth uses to alchemize emotion and political relevance.

A Fitzgerald short story about a man named Button who ages backwards is not the place for a hurricane Katrina backstory! It only detracts from the overall experience.

The movie is well over 30 minutes too long. I’m all for epic duration … if the story is epic enough to warrant it.

There’s a phenomenal two-hour movie in that screenplay somewhere, which Roth chose to bludgeon into a near three-hour ham-fest of variable efficacy.

Roth worships at the altar of clichéd subplots and hackneyed pseudo-realism in a vain attempt to emote us to death.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a visually stunning, but grossly indulgent romantic epic that comes frustratingly short of what would have, could have and should have been.