“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
At the Michigan, Quality 16 and Showcase

Courtesy of Paramount

4 out of 5 Stars

It’s human nature to second-guess. People tend to look back on their lives and wish for do-overs, second chances or the foresight to understand the consequences of their actions. After all, Rod Stewart sang it best, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” Infants’ minds begin blissfully unaware of anything, especially the life experiences that will eventually make them who they are. People grow up and out; or that’s how it usually goes.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” takes the concepts of age and experiences and turns them on their heads. The film, inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name, follows the life of a man whose physical appearance ages in reverse. Born a wrinkly and feeble-bodied infant, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, “Burn After Reading”) grows younger each year. The phenomenon makes him an obvious outsider, quite unlike the other children around him. While Button’s backwards descent into youth certainly affects his various travels and experiences, it’s his relationship with the beautiful Daisy (Cate Blanchett, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) that most deeply shapes who he is and who he wants to become.

Films that span a character’s lifetime typically employ several actors to play the character at different ages. But “Benjamin Button” director David Fincher (“Zodiac”) wisely goes a different route here, employing some of the most advanced CGI effects available to add and remove years from the actors’ faces. This approach makes a 20-year-old Pitt and a 70-year-old Blanchett look credible — a feat considering that these superstars’ faces are recognizable worldwide. Some effects are misses — the 80-year-old incarnation of Benjamin Button is eerily Gollum-like — but, for the most part, the effects are believable.

Aside from the visual effects, the most engaging element of “Button” is, unsurprisingly, leading man Pitt. Primarily known for his heartthrob appearance, Pitt spends a significant part of the film looking less than beautiful. But as the audience comes to discover, it’s really only Button’s body that changes significantly over time, not his demeanor. Pitt plays Button as the eternal optimist, whether seven or 70. Pitt’s eyes shine whimsically through the CGI effects, showing how Button’s outsider appearance has little to do with who his real character is.

“Button” also benefits from a gifted supporting cast. One standout is Taraji P. Henson (“Smokin’ Aces”), as Queenie, a servant at a nursing home who takes in the abandoned Button and raises him as her own. Henson’s loving portrayal of a woman who believes in the power of fate reveals an enduring theme of the film: Even though Button’s fate is set — he can’t change how he ages — he still aims to live every moment to its fullest.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this re-imagined version of Fitzgerald’s story is the interactions between the characters and the time periods in which they live. There would have been no way for Fitzgerald to predict the trends of the ’50s, ’60s and beyond, but the film provides apt depictions of the changing eras. It’s fascinating to see how a character engineered in the ’20s functions in a more modern society, and Fincher is able to create a world and circumstance that allows Button to remain true to his most endearing quality: his love for life.

“Button” isn’t perfect. The length alone is more than enough to deter many casual moviegoers, but it is certainly one of the all-around best-produced films of 2008. Its message is hopeful, its story is touching and, like Button’s own life, its ending is surprisingly satisfying.

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