Tonight, a lump of coal for Christmas. And by God, this disappointment hurt, more than just about any other disappointing movie I've seen in this whole goddamnable year of underachieving cinema. Not that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a particularly bad film - it's resolutely middle-of-the-road, taken all in all - but its failures are spectacularly highlighted by its overwhelming ambition, not to mention the mere fact that director David Fincher happened to be in the unenviable position of following Zodiac, his first flat-out masterpiece, with a film in a foreign genre that he clearly couldn't get a handle on. There were significant problems with the script and casting that might have left the film a bit muddled anyway, but the biggest problem by far is that Fincher obviously does not have an answer to the central questions, what is the movie about, and why was he interested in making it?

Okay, there's a very definite answer to that second question: he was interested because the film allowed him to play with some fan-fucking-tabulous digital toys. I'll not be so condescending as to assume that you've been able to avoid learning what the film (adapted from a lesser F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) is about, but for form's sake: Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, born in New Orleans on Armistice Day in the body of an eightysomething man, who ages backwards throughout the 20th Century. The practical upshot is that in the first hour of the 159-minute film, Pitt is synthetically aged through what is undoubtedly the most technically advanced makeup in cinema history. Basically - I'm certain this is a gross oversimplification - the actor's face was covered in sensors akin to those used to turn Andy Serkis into Gollum and King Kong, before it was caked in prosthetic wrinkles, so that a team of effects animators could retouch his face to be an undefinable combination of CGI and latex. Following this, his face was superimposed onto the bodies of several actors playing Benjamin's body at various heights.

It works staggeringly well, though it takes a little bit of getting used to seeing Pitt's ancient face on a three-foot tall frame. And it's easy to see why Fincher was enchanted by the storytelling possibilities of the technology, which kept the film mired in post-production for a couple of years (I'd love to find out whether Zodiac was produced in the midst of Benjamin Button; it's feasible at least, and if anyone can point me to the answer, I'd be forever grateful). Except that he maybe wasn't quite so enchanted by the storytelling possibilities of the story itself, which is splashed across the screen in the grandest epic scale, yet suffers from crimped emotional stultification. For a decade-spanning love story, Benjamin Button is wickedly inert.

A significant part of this failure can be laid squarely at the feet of the actors. Pitt, on a hot streak for these past few years, throws himself wholeheartedly into Benjamin in old age (that is, youth), finding exactly what's most interesting about a seven-year-old who looks 80, and doing it without only his voice and eyes - it's customary for actors who are able to rely on their makeup to do all their acting to do exactly that, but Pitt is a joy and delight to behold precisely when he is most unrecogonisable. It is a wicked irony, and perhaps even a deliberate choice that the younger he looks, and the more like his old matinee-idol self (the youth makeup is every bit as convincing, though much less showy, than the aging makeup), the blander his performance. He's never less interesting than when he's a 40-year-old romantic lead, which just so happens to be the central point of the film's whole damn arc. But that still leaves him ahead of his co-star, Cate Blanchett, who plays Benjamin's one true love Daisy (quite the Fitzgeraldean name, that) without distinction - I cannot recall the last time the ordinarily-talented actress was so disengaged from the part she had to play. Besides that, Pitt and Blanchett have a palpable lack of chemistry, leaving the film's romantic story fucked in every orifice.

Leaving them aside, Benjamin Button still suffers from Fincher's desire to focus on style over narrative, which might even be forgiveable (he's a great stylist) if only that style was consistent and meaningful. Certain shots in the film are as beautiful as an illustrated storybook, such as the mid-film sequence when Benjamin, then a tugboat crewman, finds himself in the Pacific Theater during World War II. A whole film made up of the diffused CGI cinematography on display in this sequence could have been a masterpiece; but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has to make do with occasionally brilliant moments erratically distributed throughout a visciously long running time. Magical realism is a tough thing to carry off successfully, and Fincher hasn't enough familiarity with it to commit 100%, leading to moments where the film almost seems ashamed of itself (e.g. any time a hummingbird appears onscreen, this movie's requisite "thematically profound motif"), and moments where we get to be ashamed on its behalf: the godawful framework narrative centered around Hurricane fucking Katrina of all things, is perhaps the worst example of the filmmakers running from an idea until it forced itself on them, leading to a horrible disconnect between What Is Meant To Be and What Is (of course, the fact that framework narratives are inherently evil is a stumbling block as well).

Eric Roth's screenplay isn't necessarily the strongest thing on the block, suffering from fervid metaphors and an uncomfortably nuance-free perspective on modern history, but at least he knows what the story is about: star-crossed lovers intersecting throughout time. It is a story told by a proud Romantic. Fincher, unfortunately, can't make heads or tails of that - this is a man whose two best films were about serial killers, let's not forget. Magical realism, romanticism and the poetic are not his mΓ©tier, nor are they well-served by his heightened-realist aesthetic. He's palpably uncomfortable telling this story. Though there are many individual moments of the profoundest beauty in Benjamin Button, the film as a whole is a bit emotionally arid, with far too many dead patches in its punishingly extreme length. It's certainly made from nothing but good intentions and ambitions, but the film's a depressing botch: whatever inspiration led the cast and crew to join the project, it didn't end up onscreen. It's the kind of movie where bigness is its own excuse, and the whole thing seems to have been gotten through as an exercise, rather than a work of art.