Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher's epic translation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story doesn't quite live up to expectations, but boy, does that ending pack a wallop.

If Hollywood handed out awards for "Best Third Act," The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher's 167-minute adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 30-page short story, would win every trophy in sight. After drifting along at a deliberate (some might say tedious) pace for two hours, Button gathers significant emotional steam as it enters its final 30 minutes, building to a final scene between the movie's time-crossed lovers—the titular curiosity Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) and the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett)—that doesn't just tug at your heartstrings, it rips your whole damn heart out right out of your chest.

It's only when you reach this point in the film that it becomes clear why Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth structured and paced the proceedings the way they have. The duo understand that if the audience is to experience the full weight of the picture's final moments, they have to feel as if they've really lived Benjamin's life alongside him. And, much like real life, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has its ups and downs, its digressions and dead ends and its moments of absolute beauty. Sometimes you can't wait for it to be over and at other times, you never want it to end. Whatever the movie's flaws—and there are many—Fincher and Roth deserve credit for not rushing their main character through his odd existence.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves; let's start at the beginning...or should that be the end? Benjamin Button opens in a New Orleans hospital room, where a dying Daisy is spending her last hours of life with her grown daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond). Looking through her mother's things, Caroline comes across a journal and stars to read it aloud to take Daisy's mind off her pain. The story that unspools in these handwritten pages is the fantastical tale of a man named Benjamin Button, who was born into this world in the year 1919 as an 80-year-old man. Abandoned by his widowed father on the doorstep of an old folks' home, Benjamin is taken in by a kindly housekeeper named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and raised as her son. While the doctors routinely predict that the weak, frail man will perish at any second, his grasp on life never weakens. Instead, he grows stronger—and noticeably younger—with each passing year. One might think that this would make Benjamin an object of fear and loathing, but folks seem to take his peculiar affliction in stride. Maybe it's because they know that even though he's aging in reverse, he's still headed towards the same destination as everybody else.

Benjamin is in his 70s when he meets Daisy for the first time and although it isn't exactly love at first sight, the two share a connection that will bring them in and out of each other's lives over the next three decades, even as they embark on vastly different paths. While Daisy establishes a career as a preeminent ballerina, Benjamin earns a spot on a salvage boat, a job that sends him around the world and, briefly, into service in World War II. It's the late ’50s when they're finally at the right age and maturity level to realize they belong together, and for almost two decades, the Buttons enjoy a passionate, tender romance. But reality rears its ugly head when Daisy gives birth to a baby girl and her increasingly younger husband realizes that a day will arrive where she'll have to care for two children, one of whom isn't going to grow up and move out of the house. It's here where you'll want to make sure you've got tissues close by, because the movie goes for the emotional jugular and doesn't let up until the credits roll.

If you're able to make it through this part of the film without choking up, you've got more willpower than this critic. I'll freely admit to fighting a losing battle with my tear ducts as Benjamin's life nears its final act. It was a relief to finally experience that rush of sadness, because I spent much of the preceding two hours torn between admiration and annoyance at what Fincher and Roth were attempting to achieve. As with every one of the famously fastidious director's films, Benjamin Button is virtually flawless on a technical level. Donald Graham Burt's gorgeous sets are beautifully lit by DP Claudio Miranda, and costumer Jacqueline West lovingly recreates the popular fashions of each of the seven decades seen in the movie.

The only noticeable flaw is the CGI-version of the elderly Button, who is onscreen for much of the film's first act. While the digital actor's movements are smooth, he shares the same glassy-eyed stare that still mars computer-generated versions of live-action characters. I wish I could say that performance improves once Pitt takes over the role full-time, but this part doesn't play to the actor's strengths. By his nature, Benjamin is more of an observer than an active participant in life and Pitt is at his best when he's asked to play against his laconic, pretty-boy image. It doesn't help that the star has been saddled with some truly maudlin Forrest Gump-style voiceover narration, which has an unfortunate tendency to spell out ideas and feelings that are already apparent in the onscreen action and don't require further elaboration.

Meanwhile, Fincher and Roth's decision to take an episodic approach to the film's narrative is both Button's greatest strength and weakness. The film's unhurried pace gives you plenty of time to adapt yourself to Benjamin's reality, but you'll also find yourself growing weary of certain periods in the character's life, most notably his time at sea, where he's under the command of a drunken captain played much too broadly by Jared Harris. Perhaps the duo's most questionable creative choice was to regularly return to the elderly Daisy's hospital room throughout the film. Not only do these frequent jumps back and forth in time throw off the movie's rhythm, the scenes themselves aren't particularly well-written or performed. (For some reason, Roth also felt compelled to set this section against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina's approach on New Orleans—a poorly thought-out idea that borders on exploitation of a genuine tragedy.)

Even if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button isn't the home run Fincher's devoted fan base was hoping for, it is a beautifully crafted movie that arrives at a destination that's ultimately worth the long journey. A shorter cut may have made the studio and theatre owners happier, but it would have robbed Benjamin Button (and those of us in the audience) of a rich, full life.