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By Pete Vonder Haar | February 24, 2009

I knew little about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” going in. That the main character suffered from a mysterious condition that caused him to age in reverse, for example, and that it was directed by “Fight Club’s” David Fincher. But one thing I wasn’t aware of was that the script was penned by “Forrest Gump” screenwriter Eric Roth. Had I taken the 30 seconds necessary to look this information up on IMDb instead of merely noting the similarities between the two movies for 159 minutes, I’d have saved myself a lot of aggravation, because lack of computer generated historical scenes and mild retardation aside, “Benjamin Button” is pretty much just “Gump” with better cinematography.

The tale unfolds courtesy of the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who cajoles her daughter Caroline (a sadly underutilized Julia Ormond) into reading the diary of Daisy’s old ‘friend with benefits’ Benjamin Button. Benjamin was born in 1918 with the appearance and infirmities of a man of 80. His father, thwarted in his attempts to drown the monstrosity by Armistice Day crowds, leaves the infant on the doorstep of a nursing home. Here he is discovered by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, one of the movie’s few high points), a young attendant who passes the elderly baby off as her orphaned nephew.

Benjamin (Brad Pitt, in various stages of make-up) fits in easily with the old folks first, though he gradually regains the ability to walk and grows younger even as the other residents of the home die around him. At the age of 12, he falls for Daisy, who will work her way in and out of his life for the next 60-odd years (and since Benjamin’s mind appears to age normally, his interaction with a pre-teen Elle Fanning is rendered somewhat less unsettling than it might otherwise have been). Eventually the outwardly old/inwardly young man sets out to make his mark on the world by: serving on a tugboat, falling in love with the wife of a spy (Tilda Swinton), serving in World War II, and eventually returning to his hometown to become reacquainted with the now-legal Daisy (Cate Blanchett).

Their romance is the thematic center of the movie, though it understandably only comes into full bloom when both characters are at the optimal intersection of their ages. It also represents the movie’s core problem, for as visually stunning as Donald Burt and Claudio Miranda have made the film, Benjamin isn’t all that compelling a figure. He’s wholly reactive, for starters, and – like Gump – allows himself to be carried along by whatever prevailing plot current happens along. The only times he takes decisive action, in fact, are at least temporary failures. First, he pursues the ingénue Daisy to New York and Paris, where she repeatedly spurns his advances. Second, he decides he can’t put his two-year old daughter through the burden of growing up with a parent who ages backwards, so he bails. Never mind that Benjamin is about 50 in actual years and would presumably still be capable of having a mature conversation when the kid was approaching college age (we’ve already established he doesn’t reverse-age mentally). Abandonment makes for better drama, after all.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is very loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, emphasis on “short.” It takes about 10 minutes to read the thing, leaving plenty of free space in the movie for Roth to sow his platitudes. Here, life isn’t so much “like a box of chocolates” as it is “defined by opportunities.” Different sentiment, but still repeated frequently enough to serve as the movie’s hackneyed catchphrase, along with “When it comes to the end, you have to let go,” repeated at three life-affirming moments, the last two of which you’ll see coming like a mentally challenged Crimson Tide kick-returner. Don’t believe the pre-release hype, this one’s only for those of you who simply have to sit through all the Best Picture nominees.

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