The easy sentimentalism that F. Scott Fitzgerald tried shooing away from his prose is the hallmark of director David Fincher’s tedious triviality that runs at least 20 minutes too long. Fitzgerald’s second-tier short story, about man compelled live life backwards, is here transformed into the Forrest Gump of the 21st century. But while Gump’s gulped and gushed philosophy was admirably supported by the boyish good cheer of idiot-savant Tom Hanks, leaden Brad Pitt is an emperor with no clothes.
The child-is-father-to-the-man fable (with plenty of L.A. Zen added) introduces a New Orleans clockmaker so heartbroken by his son’s World War I death that he builds a railway station clock that ticks backward, ostensibly to give the war-decimated generation another chance. The clock’s Mojo magic delivers a disfigured infant who’s born an old man, is ditched by his terrified father, and reared in a nursing home by an archetypical black mammy called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who becomes his mother figure. Meet old boy Benjamin Button.
Benjamin plays garden gnome among the elderly, embraces catchall philosophy (“You never know what’s coming for you”) and slowly ripens backward (or forward; pick your poison) into a world that includes the Depression, times on a tugboat, World War II and a central relationship with a dancer named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whom he first meets as a girl. If such deadbolt mechanics weren’t enough, “Fight Club” Fincher needs a “Titanic”-style contrivance to bring Benjamin’s voice to life. Dying Daisy implores forty-something daughter Caroline (poor Julie Ormond, alas) to read from her album. All the while Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans. Oh, dear.
Chaos Theory, ruminations about aging, implied reincarnation, and the “meaning” of nostalgia is tossed in a single boat and left to float downstream. Majestic effects ensure Pitt is transformed from a Hobbit into a perfect version of his sculpted self, as women watch agog. Yet that’s the problem: Transformation and deliverance are no more than liner notes. Fincher leaves next-to-nothing to the imagination. Button-Pitt (channeled through Daisy-Caroline) shuffles wearily from epiphany-to-epiphany until there’s nothing dead ahead except death.
Only Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, a married woman with whom naïve Benjamin has an affair in Murmansk, pumps a little blood into these otherwise clammy proceedings — “A hotel in the middle of the night can be a magical place,” sayeth Button/Fitzgerald. Yet magic is everywhere rare. So is dramatic tension. Pitt is sweet enough but wasted. Blanchett is just as lost — though not for lack of trying. Some call this a pseudo chick-flick. Not this chick.
(For the record, Fitzgerald’s 1921 magazine story has no clockmaker and sets its thematic sights on how life’s bizarre vicissitudes outstrip both wealth and fortune.)