Two-bit man-child.

It's a testament to how far digital special effects have come that the most compelling thing about Benjamin Button isn't how Brad Pitt de-ages so convincingly. As with the simple sketch by F. Scott Fitzgerald that the movie is based on, you buy the premise immediately: An orphaned boy is born old and ages backward. And it's a credit to Pitt that he sells Button—a role that could easily become a mawkish Forrest Gump in a lesser actor's hands—completely. But Cate Blanchett as Daisy, the love of Button's life, shows Pitt up by aging the old-fashioned, boring way and making it every bit as fascinating as Button's reverse journey through most of the 20th century.

The nearly three-hour movie sails by, and director David Fincher's dogged determinedness to get the perfect shot pays off well, too: The film—with its seemingly effortless historical accuracy, rich color palettes, and beautiful cinematography—is real, rich eye candy. There are serious flaws (Button's aging doesn't flow as it should, and his narration, supposedly from a diary, becomes omniscient whenever the story needs it), but those almost make the movie more endearing. And several scenes—especially a midfilm dalliance with Tilda Swinton and a few suspenseful moments where the audience can see doom coming from miles away—are cinematic perfection.

Parts of the film go too far: Some imagery connecting hummingbirds to the souls of the departed suggests that Fincher is trying to evoke his weepy inner Spielberg, and it feels overly manipulative and false. The charge commonly leveled against Fincher (especially with last year's almost sociopathically chilly Zodiac) is that he lacks heart. This isn't a capital crime for a director, of course: Stanley Kubrick did just fine without any messy sentimentality getting in the way. Benjamin Button feels as though Fincher is swaddling himself in sentimentality and homespun wisdom to prove his humanity. It's an awkward, unconvincing fit. recommended