‘Curious Case’ comes of age from the opposite direction

Posted Dec. 25, 2008, at 6:24 p.m.

In theaters

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, directed by David Fincher, written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, 167 minutes, rated PG-13.

David Fincher’s memorable new drama, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” is the story of a child born into a wealthy New Orleans family, but who upon his birth is so hideous to behold (he looks like a cured loin of pork, only wiggling, screeching and alive), that his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), snatches him from the room where his wife just died in childbirth.

Rushing through streets that bring him to a river, Thomas is prepared to drown his son when a policeman blows a whistle — and the chase is on. Eventually, it ends at the doorstep of a retirement home, where Thomas leaves his swaddled son on the stairs that lead to the woman who will become his surrogate mother. Her name is Queenie and she’s played by Taraji P. Henson in a no-nonsense performance that’s among the year’s best.

Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” reveals its curiosities the moment Queenie pulls back the swaddling blanket and finds the oddity of an old man caught in an infant’s body. Since Queenie can’t have children of her own, she decides to make this one her own. She names him Benjamin and enters into a bittersweet journey that questions what it must be like to live one’s life while aging backward.

The answers are the usual suspects — triumph and tragedy, happiness and despair, love and loss — only turned on its side in ways that allow for an unusual kind of cruelness to creep in.

For a narrator, the movie offers Caroline (Julia Ormond), who is given a memoir from her dying mother, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and asked to read it aloud while, just outside their New Orleans hospital room, Hurricane Katrina is growing in strength. As Caroline reads, she provides the thread that strings us through Benjamin’s fantastic journey.

At nearly three hours, the movie is too dense to fully explore here, but as Benjamin (beautifully played by Brad Pitt in a bittersweet, endearing performances) ages in reverse, we find him meeting along the way all the people who will become important to him.

Daisy is one of them — he first meets her as a young girl, and soon falls in love with her. Tilda Swinton appears as Elizabeth Abbott, a married, kinky socialite so fascinated by Benjamin’s metamorphosis, she soon is sleeping with him. Another key figure is Mike (Jared Harris), a hard-drinking tugboat captain who gives Benjamin his first job and becomes one of his closest friends.

Throughout “Button,” there’s an ache to the proceedings that’s palpable, particularly as Benjamin slowly turns into the man we eventually recognize as Brad Pitt while those close to him move into the old age he already has experienced. As he grows younger and younger (the special effects are masterful and deserving of the Academy Award nomination they will receive), he watches those closest to him slip away while he himself is fueled by a vitality they have long since forgotten.

It’s tempting to say more, but that’s enough. The movie is, after all, about one man’s curious case — best not to say another word about those curiosities, and how they conspire to make for one haunting film.

Grade: A-

On DVD

HAMLET 2, directed by Andrew Fleming, written by Fleming and Pam Brady, 92 minutes, rated R.

Andrew Fleming’s “Hamlet 2” stars Steve Coogan as the delusional, middle-aged mess Dana Marschz, a homely, failed actor and high school drama teacher who looks like Tiny Tim by way of a train wreck. And that’s being kind.

Given how beautifully Coogan plays Dana, it’s also a compliment.

About Dana — he certainly is a hive of complications, all springing from his love of the theater, which at once has lifted him up and tossed him down. It all went wrong for him in his youth, when he was unfortunate enough to find modest success in a series of television commercials, which gave him that deadly commodity known as hope. At the time, he was convinced better things would come along. But they didn’t.

What did come along was a messy bout with alcoholism, and then, worse for Dana, no additional offers for work. With his acting career in the can, he and his stoner wife, Brie (Catherine Keener), moved to Tucson, Ariz., where they took in a swarthy boarder (David Arquette) to help pay the bills, and where Dana began staging disastrous productions of such popular movies as “Erin Brockovich.”

Each play was vilified by the school drama critic, Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe, excellent), who wants Dana to step up his game or get lost. And so Dana, who becomes desperate, writes a raunchy musical called “Hamlet 2.” Two of his favorite performers — Epiphany (Phoebe Strole) and Rand (Skylar Astil) — will star, as will a group of inner-city students, none of whom knew they wanted to act until they were touched by Dana’s runaway enthusiasm.

Based on script by Fleming and Pam Brady, “Hamlet 2” has John Waters and Christopher Guest written all over it. And while it doesn’t achieve their plunge into unbridled subversion, it comes close in such musical numbers as “Rocky Me, Sexy Jesus.”

Coogan is especially good (he’s fearless, particularly as Jesus), but so is Elisabeth Shue, who plays a brazen version of herself as an actress who has quit Hollywood to become a nurse at the Prickly Pear Fertility Clinic. Adding gas to the bombast is Amy Poehler, who is a highlight as the lawyer Cricket Feldstein. Her scrappy work is our good fortune, because the show Dana produces is horrifying and hilarious, and it likely will lay its intended audience flat.

Grade: B

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

Renting a DVD? BDN film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases. Those in bold print are new to stores this week.

Baby Mama — B

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — B-

The Dark Knight — A

Deception: D+

Definitely, Maybe — B+

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — A

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! — B-

The Duchess — B+

Eagle Eye — D

Forbidden Kingdom — B-

Forgetting Sarah Marshall — B-

Get Smart: DVD, Blu-ray — C-

Hancock — C-

The Happening — B

Hellboy II: The Golden Army — B+

The Incredible Hulk — B+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — B-

Iron Man — A-

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl — B+

Leatherheads — B-

Mamma Mia! — B+

Never Back Down — D

The Other Boleyn Girl — B-

Penelope — B-

Persepolis — A-

Prom Night — D

The Ruins — C+

Sex and the City — B-

Shine a Light — A-

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — B

Step Brothers — B

Tropic Thunder — B

Wall-E — A

Wanted — B+

X-Files: I Want to Believe — B-

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