By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
"Curious" is the operative word for David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as in: "I wonder why this handsomely mounted, dramatically vacant movie is being hailed as a masterpiece?"
Curious as in: "How can gushing reviewers not recognize screenwriter Eric Roth rehashing his Forrest Gump script, minus the whimsy and historical context making that film wonderful?"
Not everyone feels that way about Forrest Gump, though. I suspect that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Roth's needless apology to those who cringe at Forrest's Candide-style trip through the latter 20th century. I'll join millions of Gump fans who will await his apology for this.
Once again, we have a blissfully naive hero (Brad Pitt plus lots of makeup and digital effects) navigating through war and remembrances, propelled by unrequited love, inspiring people and overcoming handicaps. Instead of a feather, the mystic symbol is a hummingbird. Alexandre Desplat's chamber music replaces the classic rock score. Lt. Dan is now a cranky tugboat captain, while Bubba's mama is Benjamin's guardian.
The twist is that Benjamin is living his life backward, born as an old man and growing young with an elder's outlook. Fincher makes the most of this conceit in the early going; seeing Pitt's face superimposed on little people's bodies is the film's lone wonderment. But when Pitt takes over in Benjamin's teenage/50-ish middle years, the movie has nowhere to go except in circles.
Since Benjamin is a cipher without even a box-of-chocolates code to live by, Pitt has never appeared less charismatic. He moons over his "Jenny," a socialite named Daisy, with little to reveal why.
There's mild tension in the odd romance between Benjamin and Daisy, especially when she's a young girl and he's a codger with a twinkle in his eye. As the years even out and Cate Blanchett joins Pitt in latex makeup, Fincher's movie ambles into poetic longing and vague messages about love being timeless, if you care to search for them.
Fincher does imbue his movie with persnickety details of early 20th century New Orleans and doughboy battle scenes. Yet all these epic trappings for such scant drama come across like gilding a tin can. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is this year's There Will Be Blood, a movie much easier to grudgingly admire than to embrace.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.