The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

It sounds like an oxymoron, but this is a modest epic, an intimate character drama that unfolds across decades and continents with top-notch movie stars and top-notch special effects.

Benjamin Button is the tale of a man born elderly, who then goes through his life aging in reverse. With a screenplay based mostly on just the central gimmick of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story, it's hard to fight the suspicion that David Fincher et al decided to make this film primarily for the nifty opportunities to age Brad Pitt using computers. And the results are pretty impressive, though what they're doing here - adding wrinkles to his face, then putting his head on a seven-year-old's body, for example - isn't much different than what was introduced in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Still, there's a wow factor at work, which sometimes benefits the story and sometimes detracts from it. I found myself frequently trying to guess what Benjamin Button's chronological age was, what his biological age was, what costar Cate Blanchett's character's age was, and what year it was. Maybe that's just me, but if this were a great film, I shouldn't have even stopped to consider such things.

So no, I didn't find Benjamin Button to be a great film. But it's a reasonably good one. Others have made comparisons to 1994's Forrest Gump, and indeed, there are many, beginning with screenwriter Eric Roth, who co-penned both scripts, and continuing with the story elements: the innocent Southern boy born different; the flighty love of his life who pursues a stage career only to encounter tragedy; the saintly, doting mother; the passage of time and notable historical events, from World War II to Hurricane Katrina (the latter rather pointlessly inserted)... even Button's repeated phrase "you never know what life is gonna send your way" brings to mind that infamous box-of-chocolates quote. But because Button lacks Gump's sneaky, offensive conservative message - that "do as you're told and you'll be successful; buck the system and you'll deservedly fail" philosophy that made Gump such a detestable thing - it almost takes away the bitter taste left by the earlier film.

On the whole, I liked Benjamin Button: the cast is fine, the cinematography is fine, the music is fine, the production design is fine. Fincher's obsession with detail works here, and whereas some may find that the director's trademark aloofness dilutes the script's potential for sappy sentimentality, others may wish the film could have been a little more affecting. As for me, I'm split.

But the film's not important enough for me to wrack my brain about it. I'll just say that it's a sweet, old-fashioned time at the movies. You'll laugh a little, you'll cry a little, you'll probably feel relieved when it's over and you race to the bathroom because you've been sitting on your ass for nearly three hours. But it's not one of the best films of 2008 or of any year.