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Originally published December 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 26, 2008 at 7:43 AM

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Movie review

Time reverses — and stands still — in "Benjamin Button"

Brad Pitt in "Benjamin Button" — a movie that makes time stand still, almost.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Julia Ormond. Directed by David Fincher, from a screenplay by Eric Roth, based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 167 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking. Several theaters.

For a list of showtimes, see www.seattletimes.com/movies

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is that rare thing: a truly magical movie. And as such, it's difficult to find the right way to convey its spell in words.

If I tell you that it's a movie about life, death and the passage of time, you'll probably raise an eyebrow; if I say that it's nearly three hours long, you'll probably make some wisecrack involving the phrase "passage of time."

But director David Fincher, as he did in the equally fine "Zodiac" (an entirely different kind of movie), makes time fly by. You savor it as it rushes on — which is, at heart, the gentle message of this film.

Eric Roth's screenplay bears little resemblance to the F. Scott Fitzgerald story on which it's based, and that works just fine. The story is a bit of a wisp; an idea tossed into the wind by the author's imagination and allowed to dance. It can be summed up very simply: Long ago, a baby named Benjamin Button was born old, and grew young. Roth has moved the timing to the 20th century (Fitzgerald began his story around the Civil War), with Benjamin's birth coming just as World War I ends. He is born wrinkled and rheumy-eyed, grows gradually straighter and fitter, and finally after some 80 years dies as a plump infant gazing at the world without recognizing it.

Brad Pitt, assisted by some remarkably subtle CGI effects, plays Benjamin from start to finish; it's an essentially passive role, as he's a watchful man who learns about life from those around him. Young (or old) Benjamin grows up (or down, so to speak — you see why language fails me a bit with this movie) in a New Orleans boardinghouse for the elderly, on whose steps his natural father abandoned him at birth. He's raised by a fiercely loving African-American foster mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, in a performance of great sweetness) and fits into the quiet world of the house, where, we're told, "death was a common visitor."

Daisy, who he first meets when she's a little girl visiting her grandmother at the boardinghouse, is his great love, the woman with whom he can briefly meet in the middle, when her age and his age converge. Played as an adult by Cate Blanchett, she's a dancer and a romantic who believes in star-crossed love and dancing in the moonlight. But time is their enemy, and Blanchett's face as Daisy beholds Benjamin after a long absence, is devastating. He is golden and young; she is no longer. In a framing device, an elderly Daisy narrates the story from a New Orleans hospital as she herself waits to die.

Shot in sepia tones and faintly dusty light, "Benjamin Button" beautifully captures a mood of nostalgic wonder, a near-century passing by as the city, like Benjamin, grows and changes. Its fairy-tale issues are melancholy, but the film itself is uplifting and often enthralling as the actors gaze into each other's eyes and try to will time to stop, to capture a perfect moment. In its haunting central image (from Roth, not Fitzgerald), which you'll carry with you long after the movie is gone, time itself reverses: A clock at the railway station is built to run backward "so the boys who died in the war could come home again."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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