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Age before beauty

A hyper-schmaltzy insight into our obsession with youthful looks

<strong>The Curious Case of Benj

One three-hour film about mortality starring Brad Pitt could be dismissed as unfortunate. Two begins to look like sheer bloody-mindedness. But The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which Pitt plays a man born with the leathery skin and osteoporosis of a 70-year-old before ageing backwards, is not the disaster that 1998's Meet Joe Black was. (Few films are.) It's a mix of the banal and the seductive, with most of the latter confined to the eerie final moments where the film makes good on the promise that its hero will, literally, die young. But I was surprised to learn that the screenplay is based on a story by F Scott Fitzgerald: its high whimsy content and bereavement-card dialogue ("We're meant to lose the people we love: how else would we know how important they are?") suggests the deadening hand of John Irving.

Unimaginably, it's worse than that: the screenwriter, Eric Roth, is famous for Forrest Gump, and he has fashioned Benjamin's story into another fable about a misfit untouched by the social changes he lives through. He has also lumbered the film with that dreaded flashback framing device whereby an elderly and/or dying character, or their offspring, narrates the story we're seeing, preferably between desperate gulps of oxygen.

One day there will be screenwriting software that self-destructs when the user invokes this type of clichéd structure, but until then we are stuck with films such as Saving Private Ryan, The Bridges of Madison County, Flags of Our Fathers - and Benjamin Button, which is narrated from a hospital bed by Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett in English Patient make-up, and her daughter (Julia Ormond), who reads aloud from a diary kept by Benjamin, Daisy's former sweetheart. Every so often, Daisy starts wheezing and a nurse pops in to remind us: "She's struggling to breathe!" If only they knew they were in a film, these people could relax; the narrator is hardly going to conk out before the meaningful final-act revelation.

The director, David Fincher, who brings the visual snazziness but little of the wit from earlier films such as Seven and Zodiac, has his work cut out tempering both Roth's mawkishness and the tale's unsavoury overtones. The film vetoes outright Fitzgerald's idea of the newborn Benjamin becoming garrulous only moments after the snipping of his umbilical cord; instead, this freakish creature, abandoned by his father in 1920s New Orleans, starts out like the baby from Eraserhead, and is then transformed into a teeny-weeny John Denver lookalike by complex digital trickery and make-up. In his delicately modulated performance, Pitt projects a childlike watchfulness from beneath a geriatric crust. Never mind the Oscar - he merits some kind of statuette from Saga.

There's less that Fincher can do to make palatable the moment when Benjamin - inwardly a child but outwardly a pensioner - is caught playing midnight games with the nine-year-old Daisy. Our knowledge of who he is inside does not dispel the queasiness of the scene, and the sexual relationship between the couple as adults is all the more interesting, filtered through that initial taboo.

Perhaps it is such ambiguities that cause Benjamin Button to overcompensate, administering cauldrons full of sugar to help the odd drop of medicine go down. It's flabbergasting, for instance, that Fincher is sincere in his portrayal of the institution for adorable old eccentrics where Benjamin grows up; the twee tone makes Cocoon look like a hard-hitting exposé on care homes, while the idealised relationship between Benjamin and his adoptive African-American family can only be taken straight by anyone who hasn't seen Steve Martin in The Jerk ("I was born a poor black child..."). As Benjamin grows more conventionally desirable the nearer he gets to the grave, the film matures into a riposte to a world that prizes youthful beauty to the exclusion of any other sort - a world, you might say, that makes a god of Brad Pitt. Except that the only substance comes from the presence and persona of this actor, who in his willingness to tarnish his pin-up looks (see Kalifornia, Twelve Monkeys, Snatch) has demonstrated a high level of image consciousness. The serene shock of seeing him digitally restored to his younger self, before he regresses finally to infancy, provides both a fresh way to imagine decrepitude and mortality, and an insight into the neuroses that keep our idols awake at night.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009