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curious-case-benjamin-buttonI once saw a bumper sticker on a car in an old folk’s home parking lot that read “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” The sentiment is too true—just ask my stiff back and aching knees—but a new film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, may have the solution to the woes of old age. In the movie Brad Pitt plays the title character, an unusual man who was born old—“He shows all the infirmities of an 80 year old man,” says the attending physician—and grows younger as the years pass. By the time he’s in his fifties, when the rest of us are starting to feel the effects of old age, he’s as spy as a teenager. His biggest problem? Acne…

“I was born under unusual circumstances,” says Benjamin Button.  His strange story begins on his birthday on the last day of World War I. When his birth mother dies in childbirth his father, unable to deal with his grief, leaves the baby, who looks more like a tiny eighty-year-old man than a newborn, on the steps of a New Orleans retirement home. “You are as ugly as an old pot,” says Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), the woman who would raise him as her own. Benjamin is unique, a man who is aging in reverse. As he grows up his wrinkles fade, his cataracts clear and his bones stop aching. The question is: How can he lead a normal life—marry, be a father, hold a job—when he will one day devolve into a child?

By all accounts The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has much in common with another movie about a special young man who had an epic life—Forrest Gump. From the storyline—IMDB says it “is a grand tale of a not-so-ordinary man and the people and places he discovers along the way, the loves he finds, the joys of life and the sadness of death…”—which echoes the Tom Hanks movie, to the high tech wizardry crucial to the visual look of the movie, to the way Pitt says “Mama” in his New Orleans accent, to the movie’s catchphrase, “You never know what’s coming for you,” Benjamin Button breathes the same air as Forrest Gump. Fortunately the cloying sentimentality of Gump has been left behind.

Button will tug at your heart strings—it is, after all, a big Christmas movie—but director David Fincher has avoided most of the sentimental landmines common to movies of this type and allows the story, the characters and the situations to speak for themselves.

At the center of it all is Pitt. Could it be that Brad Pitt is turning into a very interesting actor? In Benjamin Button he appears to do very little. His performance is all reaction. As the old looking teenager he constantly looks as if he is drinking in his surroundings; figuring out his place in the world. As he mentally grows, but grows younger looking he gets more physically vital, but never loses his sense of wonder.

It’s a deceptively simple performance—doing little is a difficult choice for an actor—that shows another side of Pitt. We’ve seen serious Pitt, sexy Pitt, buff Pitt, even goofy Pitt—his take on Burn After Reading’s dim-witted personal trainer was one of that movie’s main pleasures—but now we see something else; understated Pitt.

Perhaps, like Johnny Depp, Pitt is straying from parts that simply showcase his good looks and choosing consistently interesting movies that demonstrate his talent. Now, if he could find a director and partner to nurture him—like Depp and Tim Burton—sparks might really fly every time out.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie that could easily have been overshadowed by the state-of-the-art CGI used to strip the years off of Pitt and Blanchett but is saved from becoming an exercise in computer manipulation by nice understated performances that balance out the high tech trickery.

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