IN OUR Viagra/Botox world, there may be nothing so subversive as the message in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": what a drag it is getting younger.
The movie stars Golden Globe-nominated Brad Pitt as a fellow who ages backward - born an old man in an old folks home in turn of the century Louisiana, growing younger and stronger as he embarks on a picturesque odyssey comprising continents, war and love.
Director David Fincher tells this imaginative story with uncharacteristic warmth (unless you thought "Zodiac" and "Fight Club" were warm), but with his usual sure sense of control and technical skill.
Fincher's mastery is evident in the movie's early, effects-laden scenes, which take Pitt's famous face and digitally morph it with an elderly man's body.
I don't know that I was completely convinced - Benjamin looks like a combination of Dean Jagger and Tolkien's Gollum - but it works anyway. The effects are a put-on, the movie is a fable, and together with Fincher's storybook presentation, it all makes sense.
This portion of the movie works on the heart, too, thanks to Taraji P. Henson (also Globe nominated) as Queenie, Ben's adoptive mom. She's the rest-home worker who finds the hideous, abandoned infant on the doorstep, and raises him, lovingly, as her own.
Benjamin's years in the old-folks home are brilliantly done, blending child-like wonder with mortality in the manner of the best Tim Burton movies. It's here that the movie is most effective in drawing a strange tension between Benjamin's unnatural development and that of his elderly fellow residents and friends, who know where they are, why they are there, and have made their peace with it.
Whatever joy Benjamin feels at getting younger and more vigorous is tempered by the fact that all of his "childhood" friends are gone. The home is a place for endings, and Benjamin's life is just beginning - he leaves for what lies ahead.
When he does, the movie is never quite the same, although its lively mid-section is broadly entertaining - Ben takes a job on a tugboat and sees the world, including Tilda Swinton and WWII under the bawdy, drunken guidance of its colorful captain (Jared Harris, in another of the movie's standout performances).
It is perhaps too much to ask of any male lead that he be paired in a movie with both Swinton and Cate Blanchett, who offer enough red-haired, feminine volatility for 10 men.
And the the movie is weakest when it wants to be strongest - using the decade-spanning love affair between Benjamin and a ballerina (Blanchett) as a way to illustrate the tragic futility of Benjamin's backward journey. Here is a man who has what the culture most prizes, yet who cannot grow old with the love of his life, who cannot even be a father to his own child, because he is a child himself.
The concept is evident, the emotion is not. Pitt and Blanchett grasp for chemistry in a story that makes him younger and more callow-looking, and buries her under more and more layers of latex.
The movie finds itself again when Benjamin returns to the New Orleans rest home as a senile boy, oblivious to his situation, but in any case alone and unknown.
What a drag, indeed. *
Produced by Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy and Cean Chaffin, directed by David Fincher, written by Eric Roth, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by Paramount Pictures.