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"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" *** 1/2 (167 minutes)

Tuesday December 2, 2008

Screenwriter Eric Roth hit a grand slam right out of the box with his initial outing when he penned 1994's smash fantasy "Forest Gump"-winning an Oscar in the process. He followed this success with 1998's "The Horse Whisperer", 1999's "The Insider" (Oscar nominated), 2001's "Ali", and 2005's "Munich" (also Oscar nominated). He's been in a mini-slump lately with "The Good Shepard" & "Lucky You" but he seems to have come out of this period with flying colors after adapting the general idea behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about the birth of an 80 year old man (Brad Pitt) who actually ages backwards. Director David Fincher ("Seven", "Fight Club", "Panic Room", "Zodiac") has lovingly created this tale bestowing fantastic production values to cover this story that spans the years 1918-2005. Using Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop, we meet a dying woman (an utterly fantastic Cate Blanchett) holed up in a New Orleans hospital while her daughter (Julia Ormand) reads a diary written by her mother's old friend. Here the narrative is told through flashbacks as the ominous storm is approaching. Much of this tale will remind you of Roth's 1994 masterpiece: the fantasy and sentimentality are abundant-as are the incredible effects used to display Pitt as he begins his life as a wrinkled invalid only to "age" backwards into, well, Brad Pitt. In fact, the feat of convincingly showing, at the appropriate point in the film, both Pitt and Blanchett half their real ages is as startling as the ET-like effects or the old woman makeup. Going in, I thought that the CGI would overwhelm the storytelling to such a degree as to be a distraction that would be hard to overcome. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I got caught up in the proceedings and then started to ponder the overall themes of love, life and death, and how fleeting it all is, long after the credits rolled. The supporting cast is nothing short of superb, including a delicious role by the great Tilda Swinton who plays a bored sophisticate with whom Benjamin meets in Murmansk and from whom he learns about love and desire. Also, Taraji Penda Henson (accumulating an impressive body of work, appearing in "Hustle & Flow", "Four Brothers", & "Talk To Me") is wonderful as the black woman who cares for baby Brad after he is left on a nursing home doorstep. The score by Alexander Desplat never intrudes and is always appropriate to the action. Look for multiple Oscar noms for this "curious" tale of Hollywood magic that opens nationwide on Christmas Day.

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