Thursday, December 25, 2008

Not quite on the "Button"

Age makeup is one of those travesties of serious movies that never seems to get any better, no matter how much cinematic technology has advanced. Actors and actresses who are supposed to age 30 or 40 years for a role always emerge looking like they'd been attacked by a Silly Putty machine. Sometimes the transformations are so unconvincing, they evoke laughter. I still laugh when I think about Bette Midler in "For the Boys." She looked like Jonah eaten by the whale, and spit out half-digested.

They finally got it right with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," in which Brad Pitt is born an 80-something man and ages in reverse. Using computer-generated effects (in some cases with Pitt's face projected on other actors) as well as makeup, the journey backward in time is never less than convincing. Cate Blanchett, as the love of his life Daisy, also gets excellent treatment, first seen as an elderly woman on her death bed, with flashbacks showing her as a luminous young woman, and then slowly aging forward.

Director David Fincher uses the aging effects without ever getting hung up on them. But on a visceral level, the movie fails to make a huge impact.

Oh, Pitt and Blanchett give competent turns. It's just that Benjamin as a character -- well, doesn't have much character. He's a more or less passive presence, bouncing through life listening to others and not making much of his own statement. During his adventures he travels the ocean blue, meets colorful characters ranging from an Irish tugboat captain to an African pygmy. But he remains mostly a cypher upon which others transmit their experiences.

It's a long movie -- tagging in at just under three hours. I can't say as it ever dragged, but I would be lying if I said I was entirely unconscious of the passage of time -- Benjamin's, and my own.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is like an unexpected guest who drops by, is an amusing but enigmatic presence, and then departs without much trace to mark his passing.

2.5 stars out of four.

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