Ageless epic
Pitt, Blanchett star in solid 'Benjamin Button'

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" marks the third collaboration between leading man Brad Pitt and director David Fincher and even though it is a very good film, doesn't quite match the electrifying intensity of "Se7en" or "Fight Club." If its 166 minutes had been trimmed down to around 120, it would qualify as the best movie (so far) of 2008. "Too much movie" is the worst thing that can be said about this convention-defying epic.

Based loosely on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "CCBB" does exactly what it should: it offers a basic premise with few sub-plots and slowly builds upon a sturdy, solid foundation. In one fell swoop, it also debunks most of the societal perceptions regarding aging, youth and what it means to be truly alive. It should be required viewing for anyone who believes their best days are behind them.

Benjamin (Pitt) was born in New Orleans the day after the end of World War I. His mother died shortly after giving birth and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) - disgusted with his newborn son's ghastly appearance - abandons him on the steps of a nursing home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

Queenie has a similar reaction to the infant, but because she is a devout Christian, takes him in and treats him like her own flesh and blood. Brought into this world with a slew of illnesses usually associated with dying seniors, Benjamin is an old man trapped inside a baby's body.

Because he spends his early years in an old age home, Benjamin's appearance goes largely unnoticed, even when it is clear he is aging backward. Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth slyly embroider this tidbit of fantastical abnormality into a whole cloth of daily humdrum. Benjamin and those around him are aware he's different, yet he's never viewed as a freak of nature. Even by Daisy.

Played by four actresses (including Elle Fanning and mostly by Cate Blanchett), Daisy was born at about the same time as Benjamin and they form an immediate, inexplicable bond. He's an old man, she's a young girl and at some point their outward ages will be in synch and then trade places - and not without some severe emotional hiccups along the way.

To Blanchett and the filmmaker's credit, Daisy is often portrayed as a shallow and unlikeable sort; but usually not without reason. She carries with her the normal, traditional perceptions of love, longing and aging and even with her knowledge and sympathy toward Benjamin's condition, she still feels somewhat cheated.

In addition to the slightly long-winded running-length, Roth's script often bears a too-close resemblance to his Oscar-winning screenplay for "Forrest Gump." The unrequited love for a distanced, sometimes aloof romantic interest, the put-upon mother figure, daddy issues, quirky supporting characters, the intersections with true-life events make the comparisons too hard and obvious to ignore. Because Roth and Fincher are so good at their respective jobs, the movie's derivativeness becomes increasingly easy to overlook.

Blanchett, as usual, steps into Oscar-worthy territory, but it is Pitt who lends the production its ultimate heart and soul. Save for the 20 or so minutes in the third act when he is seen at his off-screen Adonis perfection, Pitt is at his acting zenith. Though credit should be appropriately be lavished upon Fincher's CGI crew for making it look so real, Pitt disappears into the role of Benjamin and leaves all questions regarding his true acting acumen in the dust.

This is a career-defining performance by a very good actor whose talents are usually overshadowed by his looks. For those who think he's just a pretty face, "CCBB" will go far in changing their minds. (Paramount/Warner Bros.)