The Movie Review: Christmas Avalanche Edition

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This post originally appeared at TNR.com.

It is presumably an unintentional irony that it is more than two hours into The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that star Brad Pitt observes, "I was thinking how nothing lasts." It is more ironic still that nearly another half-hour passes before co-star Cate Blanchett concurs: "Nothing lasts."

Benjamin Button is stately, gorgeous, intermittently moving, and very, very long. Films that come within spitting distance of the three-hour mark generally maintain their forward momentum by means of some dramatic occurrence: a war, a dangerous journey, a struggle against oppression—or, in the case of Australia, all of the above. But Benjamin Button is a film of mood, not motion. At its best, it is evocative and affecting; at its worst, an exercise in sentimental portraiture—and the line between the two tendencies is not always a clear one.

Screenwriter Eric Roth borrows the central conceit of the film—of a man, Benjamin Button (Pitt), born with a wizened, elderly body that ages backward toward youth—from the eponymous short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the film owes a greater debt to Roth's own Oscar-winning script for Forrest Gump, both in its broad arc—this, too, is the story of a unique boy growing into unique adulthood—and in its particular details: the Southern setting (New Orleans, transposed from the Baltimore of Fitzgerald's original); the plucky, aphorism-spouting single mom; the coming-of-age discoveries of sex and love and mortality; the parade of quirky supporting figures; the brush with war; the childhood sweetheart (Blanchett's "Daisy") with whom romantic paths are repeatedly crossed; the historic touchstones placed noisily in the background (Gump had Vietnam and Elvis; Button gets WWII and the Beatles); the contemporary framing narrative (in this case, a slightly distasteful deathbed recounting as Hurricane Katrina bears down on the Big Easy—nothing lasts, indeed).

But if the stories are similar, the tellings are miles apart. Where Gump's Robert Zemeckis aimed for a hokey, Fulghumesque fable, Benjamin Button director David Fincher (Zodiac) imbues his material, for better and worse, with a literary lushness. Snatches of insight are scattered throughout: the way a beautiful, sweet girl can become, for a time, a beautiful, intolerable young woman; the presumptive possessiveness of even the most decent men; the long shadow cast by an early sexual dalliance (in this case, with Tilda Swinton). Even as the film wanders patiently through the episodes that make up a life, it presents the central conceit matter-of-factly: Those familiar with Benjamin's reverse-aging are surprised by it but not terribly fazed; no government scientists ever arrive to lock him in an underground lab for study.

While some in the supporting cast indulge in amiable caricature, Pitt and Blanchett deliver understated performances, devoid of showy effect, and persuasively embody characters who age (albeit in opposite directions) 60 years or more in the course of the film. From a technical standpoint, too, their transformations are a marvel of interlocking cinematic and cosmetic effects. And Claudio Miranda's camera work offers not only the glow of legend but occasional flashes of genuine beauty—two kids conspiring by candlelight under a bedsheet-tent, an iridescent sunrise over Lake Pontchartrain.

Fincher displays the obsessive attention to detail for which he is famous, though I confess I never imagined that I would fault a movie by the director of Se7en and Fight Club for lacking bite. In its final act, the film at last unspools the tragedy that had remained tightly coiled throughout, as Benjamin leaves behind physical maturity, and with it any kind of normalcy, for a childhood of senescence and dementia. These latter scenes invert the film's earlier hopefulness—that of an apparent old man with a full, fascinating life ahead of him—and develop a power so uncommon, and unanticipated, that they make the first two-and-a-half hours of the film seem almost a preamble, with an emphasis on "amble." It's a conclusion that redeems any slack that preceded it. Yet I can't help but find myself wishing that, from the beginning, Fincher had pushed this Button a little more forcefully.

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is not a film about sports but, appropriately, one about the shabbier precincts of show business, where performers sell not only an illusion, but to varying degrees their bodies and souls. Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a star during the 1980s wrestling boom, but unlike his old sparring partners—his "nemesis," the Ayatollah, now has a car dealership in Arizona—Randy is still at it, a nostalgia act relegated to the margins. Madison Square Garden-sized arenas have been replaced by high-school gyms, pay-per-view purses by a few folded bills passed along apologetically. Though still powerful, his physique is visibly worn. His long, peroxided locks look like a poorly rinsed mop; off-duty, he sports glasses and a hearing aid he touchingly tries to conceal.

Randy is not, however, a bitter guy—not when he's locked out of his trailer in Jersey for unpaid rent, not when neighborhood kids wake him from a night spent asleep in his van. He's an avuncular figure to the up-and-coming twentysomethings with whom he wrestles, and they respect him in kind. Some of the film's best scenes convey the backstage tenderness of growth-hormoned giants preparing to pulverize one another for a crowd's amusement, the friendly negotiations between "faces" and "heels" over the crippling good-vs-evil pantomime about to ensue.

After a hardcore bout against a pasty sadist (the real-life "Necro-Butcher"), featuring barbed wire, broken glass, staple guns, and other implements of bloody defilement, Randy receives a wakeup call in the form of a beneficent heart attack, a firm signal that it's time for him to do something else with his life. And for a while he does, reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); taking a day job at a grocery-store meat counter; making fitful romantic progress with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a local stripper with a soft spot for martyrs of the flesh. (She describes The Passion of the Christ in awe: "They beat the living fuck out of him for two whole hours and he just takes it." Randy agrees: "Tough fucking guy.") But The Wrestler is no simple redemption tale. Randy may be a fundamentally decent guy, but he is, as his daughter points out, a lifelong fuckup, and sometimes such nebulous flaws are the ones least amenable to repair.

Aronofsky's direction is sharp but unassuming—a distant cry from his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain—and the script, by Robert Siegel (former editor of The Onion), displays unexpected insight. Note, for instance, the way Randy and Cassidy at first appear to share circumstances, but are gradually revealed to have opposite impulses: her, to escape from a demimonde of carnal exploitation; him, to escape into it.

The real reason to see the film, though, is Rourke, who gives the kind of performance many of us imagined he would have offered with regularity over the past two decades. Instead, he wandered: into Cinemax bait, into boxing, into a body, at once hulking and defeated, that no fan of his early '80s work could ever have foreseen. In Sin City, Rourke used this newfound mass to convey the indomitability of a granite golem; here, he is again made flesh, his broad back merely providing a larger target for the injuries and indignities the world deigns to bestow. Most remarkable, though, is the degree to which Rourke, in a role that could have invited outsized characterization, instead offers modesty and understatement. This small performance, in a small film, is by far the biggest of his career.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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