(CNN) -- Standing a head taller than the worthy, conventional and mostly rather dull entries in this season's lackluster Oscar race, David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a risky romantic epic, grand in ambition and design, alternately flawed and fabulous in execution.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Sophisticated but oddball, "Button" will be a challenge for the marketing men, but audiences who take the plunge will likely find themselves entranced -- if occasionally enervated.
F Scott Fitzgerald's slim novella presents enormous difficulties to the filmmaker. It is the story of a man born into a wizened and infirm body who gets younger as he ages. At 10, he has the physique of a diminutive septuagenarian. At 20, he looks like a 60-year-old. And so on, all the way to infancy and death.
Between them, Fincher, star Brad Pitt, all the actors who play Benjamin at various ages, and some triumphant makeup and digital effects teams stitch together a character who is completely believable from first to last -- or last to first, if you prefer. Pitt, in particular, has never been better, and surely merits an Academy Award nomination even if his list of thanks would presumably entail extra minutes at the podium. Watch a preview of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" »
Benjamin's adoptive mother, a practical-minded African-American woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), accepts the boy's unusual condition with the forbearance of someone accustomed to life's vicissitudes. In a clever invention from screenwriter Eric Roth ("The Good Shepherd" and "Forrest Gump"), Queenie runs a caring home for the elderly, so Master Benjamin fits in reasonably well, though one old lady is disconcerted by his fondness for her granddaughter Daisy.
Fitzgerald's story is a pregnant philosophical conceit, like a peculiarly refined "Twilight Zone" episode, set among Baltimore's 19th-century gentry. Roth expands it into a rich Louisiana picaresque, ranging far and wide as Benjamin tastes romance in Russia with the wife of an English diplomat (a beguiling Tilda Swinton), comes off second-best in an encounter with a German U-boat, and pursues Daisy, the love of his life, first to New York and then to Paris.
If Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is a nod in the direction of another beloved Fitzgerald character, Button is more akin to a slightly savvier Gump than to Gatsby, constantly buffeted by time's arrow and his outrageous fortune. He has better luck than Gatsby when it comes to romance -- though that has its own twist.
The movie bides its sweet time, not all of it well spent. A framing device with Daisy on her deathbed, Hurricane Katrina brewing in the background, is cumbersome and not always as clear as it might be. A vignette with Elias Koteas as a clockmaker who loses his son in World War I and manufactures a station clock to turn back time is beautifully told, but it's gilding the lily.
Likewise, there's an infuriatingly computer-generated hummingbird that pops up twice, a self-consciously poetic touch that feels heavy-handed and false.
Despite these flaws, and others, the film's bittersweet reverse angle on the aging process is inescapably moving.
There is something beautiful about the trajectory which sees Benjamin and Daisy's lifelong love affair blooming briefly in middle age, at the point where the scales come into balance, though Fitzgerald's dry account of the relationship gradually falling apart is probably more honest. All the same, we're left with a terrible sense of loneliness and loss as time inevitably takes its toll.
David Fincher is famous for dark thrillers like "Seven," "Zodiac" and "Fight Club," but this bizarre and graceful love story is as morbid in its own way. Everybody dies. Even that ornately decorated New Orleans architecture is doomed to crumble.
But, even if "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" ultimately falls frustratingly shy of enduring greatness, Fincher does a beautiful job. After all, it takes an artist to make time stand still.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is rated PG-13 and runs 167 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
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