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Death by Whimsy

“Benjamin Button” is a curious case, indeed.



You've probably heard of being tickled to death. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you whimsied to death, a far more real and fearsome fate, inflicted with more ferocity than any other movie by the “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” inexplicably directed by “Fight Club” director David Fincher.

How whimsical? The Webster's dictionary entry for “whimsy” on my computer cites the sentence, “the film is an awkward blend of whimsy and moralizing,” which proves “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is the type of film Webster's was thinking about, but doesn't demonstrate how awkward things can be.

The title suggests the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story inspired the movie, but you could just as easily argue inspiration by “Mork and Mindy,” because the only surviving element of the story is a man, Brad Pitt, who ages backward. Element is not too weak a word either, because the backward-aging thing is just one of many whimsical ingredients giddily poured into this stew.

The movie spills over the two hour and 45 minute mark, yet had neither room nor desire to include anything else from Fitzgerald's imagination. Instead it covers nearly a century of romance, intrigue, adventure, world travel, historic figures, acts of God, two world wars and Hurricane Katrina, an addition not offered explanation but probably not the best example of collaboration with state film agencies. You could call the movie “Forrest Gump's Notebook” by way of Jean-Pierre Jeunet — until the main characters reach their golden-hued youth, when it looks like a commercial for Bain de Soleil.

Eyes misting from all the foggy seafaring and sepia-toned historical romancing, one must grope for the small bits of actual plot. Evidently in Louisiana many movie fads ago, there was a CGI baby born with CGI wrinkles, whose horrified father, Jason Flemyng, dumped the child on the doorstep of an old folks' home. The baby grew up to look like Golem from “The Lord of the Rings” with Brad Pitt's eyes, was loved anyway, and went off to seek his adventure while growing young.

The impetus for the story has something to do with a magical clock, doted over by a lengthy introduction but not really explained, then never mentioned again. The conclusion you'll have to figure out for yourself.

Every episode in the child's life is narrated over by Benjamin, who evidently had some time to jot down his memoirs. This allows for countless deep thoughts such as, “When you come home everything looks the same, smells the same, and you realize what's changed is you” — until Benjamin reaches the age where there's no future self mature or even cognizant enough to realize how much he's changed, of course. One of the problems with the movie version of this curious case is that Benjamin the narrator must cease to exist before the actual person gives up short pants for diapers. If the filmmakers saw a problem with a character arc that fades into infancy, their solution is simply to switch narrators. Nobody will notice with all the touching codas to ponder, right?

Director Fincher and his collaborators, including screenwriter Eric Roth, managed one admirable feat. They created a fawning Brad Pitt star vehicle in which Pitt appears in full magazine-cover-boy glory for a mercifully brief period. The actor isn't asked to say much during this period and mostly soars through aching sunsets behind Ray-Bans on motorcycles and sailboats — until a pointless sojourn to the Far East, evoking fond memories of “Seven Years in Tibet.” This after he comes of age on an ocean voyage, conducts a lifelong love affair with an international ballerina (Cate Blanchett), learns to drink vodka in frozen Russia, woos a world-class swimmer (Tilda Swinton), battles a Nazi U-boat and raises a family (well, sort of), suffering through puberty and bed wetting for his troubles.

For good measure, there are a few “Amelie”-esque moments of montage and narration whimsy to boot: Sequences run backward, kooky coincidences belabored — that kind of thing.

But back to Fincher, who's the most inexplicable piece of the puzzle. Perhaps he got a sweet money deal, but it's depressing when a rare filmmaker who knows how to make a special effect that moves an audience helps create yet another bloated carcass of meaningless effects shots and set pieces. That's “Benjamin Button” in a nutshell, CGI eye candy that amounts to nothing more than advanced hucksterism. Come to see the freak show, pay your fare and move along, before you realize how phony and sad it all is. (PG-13) 167 min. HIIII S


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