It's heartfelt and sentimental, but not reckless with emotion. There's a magic element central to the story line that doesn't distract or seem gratuitous, instead garnishing a sparkle that glimmers throughout the film.
Writer Eric Roth ("Munich," "The Good Shepherd," "Ali") loosely framed the film on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" details a man born to "unusual circumstance" who " like everyone else " can't escape life's inevitable losses.
Benjamin's (Brad Pitt) journey starts as contrary. Born to a New Orleans couple on the day of World War I's end in 1918, his life begins with a loss: his mother's life. His grief-stricken father, Thomas (Jason Flemyng, "Mirrors," "Stardust"), can bear neither the loss of his love nor the horrific disfigurement that plagues infant Benjamin.
Thomas dumps Bejamin off at the back porch of an old folks' home, where he is discovered and taken in by the home's benevolent caretaker, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, "Talk to Me," TV's "Boston Legal"). Despite advice from doctors and her love interest, Queenie keeps baby Benjamin, hoping at least to provide the boy a home so he can die among people who care for him.
Benjamin does not die; instead, he slowly becomes more alive as the years pass. With an age oppositely reflected by his physical body, Benjamin quickly becomes familiar with certain types of loss. His rickety body confined to a wheelchair, he must contend with a desire to explore, run and play like other children. Appearances must even keep him from acting on his instantaneous affection for a blue-eyed, raven-haired flower named Daisy (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota).
But life finds a way. Joining a crew aboard a local tugboat piloted by drunken sailor Captain Mike (Jared Harris, "Lady in the Water"), Benjamin jumps wholeheartedly into a life at sea, traveling the globe and welcoming any and all experiences " brothels, liquor, first love with a British spy's wife (Tilda Swinton, "Burn After Reading," "Michael Clayton") " the world affords him.
Eventually reconnecting with a grown-up Daisy (Cate Blanchett), Benjamin even experiences the tumultuous start many great romances share. Pursuing, wooing, shying and forgiving, Benjamin and Daisy dance through tragedy, together finding that true love is always underscored by sadness and feels fleeting " a universal struggle illustrated as each age oppositely.
David Fincher puts the same amount of care setting the scene and tone for "Benjamin" as he expertly did with "Zodiac," "Fight Club" and "Seven." Each location is richly detailed, historically accurate and immaculately filmed. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda keeps the lens perfectly in sync with Fincher's vision. A notable scene set in Paris is visually stunning: the drab colors of streets and walls setting a bleak landscape for Daisy as she twirls toward tragedy in a bright yellow coat. Visual effects are both sparse and grand. The reverse aging of Benjamin seamlessly incorporates Pitt's face on a shriveled and shrunken body and slowly regresses to his real age and beyond.
Acting is top-notch across the board. Pitt performs handsomely, affable and charming opposite Blanchett's typically chatterbox character. Swinton's part as the jilted, cold wife of a British spy serves her well. Appropriately cold and hopelessly broken, her brief interlude with Benjamin is a nice veer from the straightforward " if backward " plot. Henson turns in an infectious performance as Benjamin's adopted mom. Sympathetic, grounded and endlessly hopeful, her character is a joy to watch " a supporting actress worth any accolades that come her way.
Slightly disappointing is the way the story is told. Tending to her dying mother in her final hours at a New Orleans hospital, a woman reads aloud from a diary and collection of her mom's postcards and photographs, asking her some version of "Is this all true?" every so often. The modern-day hospital scene is woven throughout the film, distracting with unnecessary narration and dividing Benjamin's compelling journey. The dying mother is connected to the plot and characters, so her role isn't completely gratuitous. But as time moves through the film, the bird's-eye view grounding this part provides seems like it was added while underestimating the intelligence of the audience.
In all, "Curious Case" is wonderfully curious indeed. An imaginative, Oscar-worthy film that taps into both the joys, sorrows and helplessness of real human experience.