Remove "curious" from the title and replace it with "twee and pointless", and you're close to it. What a incredible shaggy-puppy of a movie, a cobweb-construction patched together with CGI, prosthetics, gibberish and warm tears. And, at two hours and 40 minutes, it really does go on for an incredibly long time.

David Fincher directs this adaptation, by screenwriter Eric Roth, of a minor 1921 story by F Scott Fitzgerald. The idea is that Benjamin Button - a name that, incidentally, does not get any less annoying as the minutes and hours drag by - is an Everyman-ish sort of fellow who is born in New Orleans just after the end of the first world war and lives until his late 80s. The weird thing is that he emerges from the womb a tiny shrivelled old man and gets younger and younger until he becomes super-gorgeous Brad Pitt. Then he dwindles to a boy and a baby again, unlined this time. As a wizened geezer-munchkin at the beginning of his strange existence, Button is to meet Daisy, a clear-eyed, auburn-haired little girl with whom he has an instant connection that is not at all creepy or paedophilic. This girl, a brilliant ballet dancer, grows up to be Cate Blanchett; as their ages converge, Daisy and Benjamin have a brief, passionate love affair, before the contra-flow of time takes them away from each other: ships that pass in the night.

Before they finally consummate their love, however, there are a number of false starts. At first, the callow and conceited Daisy wants to jump into bed with wise old Benjamin because she likes the idea of doing it with an older man. He gently demurs, but years later, when the slightly younger Benjamin shyly shows up backstage at her triumphant New York show, she is far too cool and famous to spend time with him. It is only after she has been crippled in a car crash - humbled, in fact, like the blinded Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre - that Daisy is spiritually ready for the privilege of a relationship with winsome Benjamin Button.

The idea of Button getting younger and younger is not imbued with any great comic or tragic insight. Or any insight at all. He is not like Dracula or Dorian Gray. He is just bland-faced Benjamin Button, who eventually, in his youthful pomp, riding his motorcycle or sailing his yacht, has all the interest of a model in a Gap advert. Apart from his remarkable physical quirk, which never attracts any medical or media attention, Benjamin really is very boring indeed. You could change the story's concept to, say, gravity working the opposite way around for Benjamin, causing him to bob around up on the ceiling with everyone else milling around on the floor, and that empty, beefcake expression of pure existential zilch wouldn't be any different. He also has a Zelig-type habit of showing up at important events: while he's sailing in Florida, you can see Apollo 11 taking off in the distance. "Oh my God, look over there everyone!" I wanted to shout. "Something interesting is happening!"

Benjamin has learned nothing of any great note on his backward journey through life, and remains placidly incurious about his condition; even the imminent tragic departure from Daisy does not elicit so much as a tear. In the intellectual stakes, this guy makes Forrest Gump look like Karl Popper.

The technical trickery used to make characters look older than they are is certainly impressive, particularly for the ancient Daisy on her hospital deathbed. But the way it makes the actors look younger, in their early 20s, is very strange. Both Cate and Brad's skin is digitally tweaked to look eerily smooth all over the face and up to the eyes, like state-of-the-art remedial work on a burns victim. The sheer, undifferentiated flesh has a metallic sheen; it looks as if it would ring if you tapped it. They don't look like youngsters as such, more like robot-replicants from Planet Westworld. The only entirely real-looking face is that of Julia Ormond, playing Daisy's grown-up daughter, reading aloud to her dying mother from Benjamin's preposterous autobiographical journal - erm, when is he supposed to have written this? - a supercilious device that triggers the film's flashback structure.

For all the apparent mirror-world strangeness, this is just another syrupy-sentimental nostalgiafest from the south, for which Hollywood has always found a lucrative market among older audiences, like the novels of Fannie Flagg. In fact, the movie it reminded me of was Nick Cassavetes's The Notebook, a treacly tale starring buttery oldsters James Garner and Gena Rowlands. David Fincher, the director of Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac brings nothing dark to this material, and nothing really distinctive at all, although he couldn't be a safer pair of hands. But this film's combination of soupy love-story and undemanding tricksiness appears to have hit the spot, with 13 Oscar nominations. Maybe it's a wish-fulfilment fantasy for thousands of Hollywood execs, who dream that as the years go by, ever increasing cash and power is making them more and more youthfully handsome.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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