By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — It's the damnedest thing. You look into the elderly man's blue eyes behind a pair of old-fashioned spectacles, look at the sweet smile ringed by wrinkles, and you know that's Brad Pitt under there.
But the special effects are so dazzling, and Pitt's performance is so gracefully convincing, that you can't help but be wowed over and over again by "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Director David Fincher has always proven himself a virtuoso visual stylist — to the point of seeming like a shameless showoff at times — with films like "Fight Club," ''Panic Room" and "Zodiac." Here, he's truly outdone himself: He's made a grand, old-fashioned epic that takes mind-boggling advantage of the most modern moviemaking technology.
Fincher's film, based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages in reverse, is rambling and gorgeous — perhaps a bit overlong and gooey in the midsection — but one that leaves you with a lingering wistfulness.
It's just so achingly sad: Pitt, as the title character, is doomed from the start. He can travel the world and live a life that's adventurous and full, but he can never truly be with the woman he loves, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whom he meets when she's just a little girl (played by Elle Fanning) and he's a boy trapped in an old man's body.
Eric Roth's script may seem naggingly similar to that of "Forrest Gump" — which he also wrote — but it seems more concerned with the transformational power of true love than the gimmickry of an unusual existence.
Born with the looks and decrepitude of an 80-year-old man, Benjamin is left on the doorstep of a New Orleans old-folks home at the end of World War I. Despite the newborn's startling appearance, the kindly Queenie (a lovely Taraji P. Henson), who works there, feels immediately drawn to him and raises the baby as her own.
He feels comfortable among the home's residents, even though he's getting physically younger as they die off one by one. There's a playful innocence to Pitt's performance in these early scenes, and a sweetness that he'll maintain for the rest of the film.
Benjamin goes to work for a drunk tugboat captain (played by a raucous Jared Harris, functioning in the Lt. Dan role, if you'd like to continue the "Gump" analogy), which takes him to Russia and the film's most exciting segment. There, he embarks on an unexpected affair with the wealthy wife of a spy. Tilda Swinton brings smarts and smoldering sensuality to the role — she shakes the picture up — but she also helps define Benjamin as he grows, internally, into a young man just beginning to understand his own prowess.
It's all preparation for Daisy, anyway — for the romance they will fleetingly find in the middle of their lives. Blanchett is fiery as the headstrong ballerina who doesn't immediately realize she's ready for Benjamin, but the way she softens toward him gives the film both a zest and a feeling of melancholy — because we know it can't last.
Daisy has been telling his story, and theirs, through a present-day framing device as she lies dying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Hurricane Katrina is on the way, and she has to tell the tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) before it's too late.
But neither Benjamin nor Daisy questions the complexity of their situation: They merely make the most of it, in ways big and small, for as long as they possibly can.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Running time: 167 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.