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CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, THE

Various hands have struggled for years to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story, about a man who lives his life backward from old age to infancy, to the screen, but until now they’ve all given up, concluding that it was unfilmable. And as David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” demonstrates, they were right. The screenplay by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) retains nothing of the original but the title and the basic premise, and alters even that so make it nearly unrecognizable, either in detail or in emotional effect. The result is Fitzgerald Gumpified, which is not a pretty thing, despite a physical production that spares no expense, technical wizardry or time (the picture runs nearly three hours) to dazzle the senses.

Fitzgerald’s take on the idea was a darkly comic one in which Benjamin, the son of a Baltimore aristocrat, was inexplicably born as a crotchety old man in 1860. He ages backward until he descends into childhood and infancy, but along the way demonstrates that he’s not a very nice person, having difficult relationships with all the members of his family—grandfather, father, son, and especially his wife, whom he loves when she’s older than he but despises as she ages and he grows younger. It’s a brittle piece of work, and while it certainly carries a touch of melancholy, it hasn’t a trace of sentiment.

The story might have made a sharp satire on screen—though any screenwriter would have had a difficult time coping with the physical circumstances of that birth. But Roth didn’t go that route. He simply chucked Fitzgerald’s tone and virtually all of his plot, save for the general idea, which he altered substantially: Benjamin (Brad Pitt, in various stages of makeup and CGI-added bodily parts) is born a wizened, wrinkled child, and as he ages, becomes an old man with a youngster’s mind, growing intellectually as he moves into middle age and then the prime of life. He ends up as an adolescent suffering the dementia of old age, finally descending into infancy.

And Roth invented an entirely new life trajectory for this much-altered oddity. Benjamin is born to a wealthy New Orleans family in the early twentieth century, and his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng), a well-to-do-businessman, abandons the malformed infant at the door of an old-age home after his beloved wife dies in childbirth. Benjamin is unofficially adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a black attendant at the home, and is brought up there, making friends with Daisy (Elle Fanning, then Madisen Beaty), a young girl who comes to visit a relative who’s a resident. He also has a series of “youthful” adventures—one involving a high-living African pygmy (Rampai Mohadi)—before becoming friends with raucous tugboat captain Mike (Jared Harris), with whom he goes off to sea, winding up in Russia, where he has an affair with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the unhappy wife of a British diplomat. Their ship also sees action against the Germans in World War II. Thomas will also reappear to reveal himself as Button’s real father.

Then there’s the now prince charmingly handsome Benjamin’s romance with Daisy (now Cate Blanchett), who’s grown into a beautiful ballet dancer who’s appearing in no less than the Broadway company of “Carousel.” His initial approach to her is rebuffed, but after she’s disabled in an accident, they become a passionate, loving couple and have a daughter. But Benjamin worries over how his condition will impact his ability to be a proper husband and father, and decides that self-sacrifice is the best option from the perspective of his wife and daughter.

The entire story, it should be added, is told in a New Orleans hospital by Daisy, now a dying old woman, to her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) just as Hurricane Katrina is approaching. And it’s tied to a bookending device about a watchmaker (Elias Koteas) who constructs a clock that runs backward as a memorial to his son, who died in World War I.

All of this is Rothian picaresque, not Fitzgerald’s biting commentary on the stages of life, and like his earlier smash “Gump,” it’s a mixture of sweet sentiment and maudlin sentiment, with a healthy dose of raucous humor and occasional action to jazz up the ordinarily vaguely morose, meditative atmosphere. It’s sumptuously appointed in every respect—the combination of director David Fincher’s lapidary style (a far cry from “Fight Club”), Claudio Miranda’s swooning widescreen cinematography, the unhurried editing by Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, the lushness of Donald Graham Burt’s production design, Tom Reta’s art direction and Jacqueline West’s costumes, Brian Sipe’s makeup and Eric Barba’s visual effects, and the evocative music by Alexandre Desplat (not one of his more memorable scores, but better than most) makes for a visually mesmerizing experience.

But the warmth of the images doesn’t translate into emotional effect. “Benjamin Button” is a curious case not only in terms of its protagonist’s aging process, but because it doesn’t generate the visceral reaction it’s obviously aiming for: it’s a gorgeously-made would-be tearjerker that leaves the ducts dry because of its extreme artificiality, in both plot and execution.

That extends from the physical production to the acting. Pitt is handicapped by the fact that for much of the film, his face is superimposed on other bodies, so he doesn’t have full range of movement, but even when he’s himself, there’s a passivity and lack of expression that make him a pretty but rather blank receptacle rather than an energized participant. That’s mostly the result of the characterization the script provides him with, but when a young actor replaces him in the last act, the plot actually becomes a more touching experience. Among the others, Henson is exuberant at every stage as Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Flemyng has a few choice moments as his birth father, Mohadi has what amounts to a scene-stealing cameo, and Swinton impresses as an unhappy woman in need of some passion. But Harris overdoes the bluster, and most importantly Blanchett is variable, sometimes capturing the proper tone but often feeling a bit off. Ormond is wasted in a thankless role.

There’s no doubt that “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a masterful technical accomplishment. But its mournful tone lacks the crowd-pleasing effect of a picture like “Gump,” and in the end it comes across as detached and a bit off-putting.

Maybe it would carry greater emotional weight if it were run backwards. Just joking!

BEDTIME STORIES

In this flyweight Disney comedy Adam Sandler tries to meld his snarky brand of lowbrow humor with sticky kid sentiment in much the same way he did in “Big Daddy” ten years ago, adding a dose of fantasy to the mix, but the mixture rarely takes off. Directed slackly by Adam Shankman, who gives his star free rein, “Bedtime Stories” is good-natured but sorely lacking in the magic this kind of family-friendly fable desperately needs.

Sandler plays Skeeter Bronson, a wisecracking but omnicompetent handyman at the swank California hotel that’s the flagship in a chain of hostelries owned by prissy British mogul Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths). Nottingham built the place on the site of a motel that Skeeter’s father Marty (Jonathan Pryce) once ran, and now that he’s announcing plans to construct a newer, even more sumptuous model, Skeeter dreams that Nottingham will finally keep a promise made to dear old dad to put the boy into a managerial position. But those hopes are dashed by Barry’s selection of the hotel’s unctuous head clerk Kendall (Guy Pearce) for the post—a guy who just happens to be the fiance of Nottingham’s jet-setting party-girl daughter Violet (Teresa Palmer). A twist of fate, however, leads Barry to change his mind and set up a contest for the position between Kendall and Skeeter, based on which of them comes up with the better idea for the new hotel’s theme.

Simultaneously Skeeter’s divorced sister Wendy (Courtney Cox), who’s going out of town on a job hunt, asks him to share babysitting duties for her kids Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling) with her friend and their teacher Jill (Keri Russell), taking the night shift. In his attempt to amuse the tykes, he begins telling them bedtime stories—and when they make additions to them, he discovers that the kids’ contributions somehow foreshadow what’s going to happen in his life for real, and he hopes to use that to win the contest. More importantly, after a rocky start Skeeter finds himself not only getting close to his niece and nephew but falling for Jill. Unfortunately, he learns that the proposed site for Nottingham’s new hotel is, unsurprisingly, their endangered school, which he’ll have to save in order to keep his personal life on track while still winning over the boss. A tall order indeed.

The script by Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy has obviously been carefully designed to give Sandler the opportunity to play both abrasive for his fans (as in the material with Pearce) and sweet for family audiences (in the scenes with Jill and the children), as well as simply silly for kids, particularly in a series of fantasy scenes (one set in a medieval castle, another in the Wild West, a third in outer space, and a fourth in ancient Rome) that act out the stories he tells the kids, and in which he can mug, do funny voices and engage in acrobatic moves with the aid of stuntmen. But though he’s doing his usual shtick, the result is pretty flat; he seems constrained by the need to keep the movie in PG territory.

And he’s continually upstaged by the picture’s real stars. One is Russell Brand, the goofy British rocker from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” who plays Skeeter’s best friend, a thoroughly dotty hotel employee who’s brain is mush and seems game for anything. (In time Brand’s shtick will probably get as old and tired as Sandler’s, but for now it’s still new enough to work.) And the other is Patrick and Bobbi’s guinea pig Bugsy, a live action/computer-generated amalgam with bulbous eyes that the camera goes to for reaction shots as often as most movies do with dogs and cats. Adults will look forward to the appearances of the former and kids to those of the latter; happily for parents and toddlers, both are quite frequent.

Otherwise the supporting cast is pretty much left hanging. Russell just smiles and does double-takes at Sandler’s antics, while Cox stews, Palmer plays a poor cousin to Paris Hilton, and Lucy Lawless looks embarrassed in the thankless role of Kendall’s shrewish assistant. On the male side, Pryce’s efforts to appear a benign saint are a mite creepy (he also narrates, with a halo around his voice), and the fussy Griffiths seems to be attempting to channel Peter Ustinov as Nottingham. The unhappiest of the lot, however, must certainly be Pearce, who’s forced to mug mercilessly as the rotter Kendall. It’s a truly embarrassing assignment for a fine actor; one can only hope the salary was substantial. Technically the picture is more than adequate, in the style of most Disney live-action fare, with nice cinematography by Michael Barrett and production design (Linda DeScenna), art direction (Christopher Burian-Mohr) and effects (John Andrew Berton, Jr.) that are especially tested in the fantasy sequences.

Still, as family fare goes, “Bedtime Stores” is distinctly middle-grade. It won’t put you to sleep, but it’s not likely to enchant you either.