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On Movies: 'Benjamin Button' mostly matches the hype

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 24, 2008 - Although "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" can be very funny and is at times filled with adventure, it is pervaded from beginning to end with an inescapable sense of melancholy, a feeling that springs from the unique arc of the central character's life.

In a film loosely based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born an old man and grows younger by the day until his cradle becomes his death bed. In a sense, Benjamin's life is like the lives of all of us, an inexorable journey from birth to death. But his story is made more poignant because he goes through the seven ages of man backward, watching the people he meets along the way grow older and, in many cases, die, as he gets ever younger.

The film's melancholy is heightened by director David Fincher's extensive use of chiaroscuro, with the characters highlighted by small auras of golden light in the pervading darkness. Fincher, the new prince of darkness among filmmakers, is the very talented director of "Se7en" and "Zodiac."

Benjamin is born in 1918, at the end of World War I. The wizened infant is abandoned by his wealthy father, a New Orleans button manufacturer, and raised by a kind woman (Taraji P. Hanson) who, appropriately if perhaps a little too conveniently, works in a nursing home. As the other residents grow older and die, Benjamin grows younger and thrives. He meets and befriends a young girl named Daisy whose grandmother is a resident of the home.

At about 20, looking about 50, Benjamin ships out on a tugboat headed for Russia, where he has his first love affair, with a diplomat's wife (Tilda Swinton). And one day he finds himself in the middle of a dramatic sea battle in the North Sea as the United States enters the Second World War.

Benjamin's early adventures are a picaresque, Dickensian delight. He wanders half-lost through the world, the innocence that beams through his still-creased face getting him into scrapes and yet helping him to survive. Pitt does a superb job of portraying a character who looks old but is possessed with a young man's capacity for wonder.

Returning to the United States, Benjamin reconnects with Daisy, who has decided to become a dancer. She is startled at his appearance - as if years of wrinkles have peeled off his face. As her career advances, and then abruptly collapses, they meet several times, and she realizes that he is growing younger. If they are lucky, she says, they can "meet in the middle."

They do. By the time Daisy and Benjamin look more or less like Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt circa 2008, they are deeply in love. "Sleep with me," she suggests. "Absolutely!" he replies.

They have an idyllic love affair, with trips on his sailboat to uninhabited tropic isles where they fall asleep in each other's arms. But, inevitably, he gets younger and she gets older. With both of them unable to bear thinking about the future, he leaves for several years. When he returns, he looks, through the magic of computer graphics, like Brad Pitt must have looked in his junior year at Mizzou. She is middle aged, with a husband and children. Their meeting is heartbreaking. It will not be their last.

The first half of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," what might be called the years of discovery, are marvelous, as good as anything released this year. The second half is somewhat less successful, perhaps because, once the suspense of when Benjamin and Daisy are going to get together has ended, the rest is almost anticlimactic - we know in a general way how it must end. And a framing device, involving Daisy on her deathbed listening to her daughter read from Benjamin's diary, seems distracting, or at least overused.

The movie is two hours and 39 minutes long, and might have been improved by losing, say, half an hour. On the other hand, critical response elsewhere to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and despite its flaws, I would have to say it is one of the better movies shown recently, and well worth seeing.

Opens Christmas Day.

Also opening on Christmas Day are, among other films, "Frost/Nixon" and "Doubt." Both are skillfully adapted from stage plays, the former about the televised battle of wits between TV personality David Frost and former President Richard M. Nixon, the other about homophobia, racism and possible child molestation at a Catholic school in the 1960s. Both are excellent films. 

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement