The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens Thursday throughout the Triangle

For all its highbrow aspirations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button remains a gimmick in search of a message.

Brad Pitt plays the title character, born near the end of World War I as a prematurely aged infant and abandoned by his father (Jason Flemyng) on the stoop of a New Orleans old-folks home run by a black woman called Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

As death envelops those around him, Benjamin slowly improves until it becomes apparent that he is growing younger physically as he ages.

So, while the audience sits around waiting to see the youthful, golden Pitt, circa A River Runs Through It, Benjamin sets out for a life of adventure, much of it as first mate aboard a tugboat helmed by an irascible captain (Jared Harris). He carries on a summer tryst in Russia with a well-heeled Englishwoman (Tilda Swinton). But, his heart ultimately belongs to his childhood friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who as an adult becomes a world-renowned ballet dancer and member of the New York bohemian scene before tragedy forces her to move back to New Orleans.

If this all sounds a bit like Forrest Gump, it’s no coincidenceGump scribe Eric Roth adapted the 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story on which this film is based. Benjamin Button offers an inverted view of life and loss, particularly as it applies to Benjamin’s star-crossed relationship with Daisy. Blanchett gives a sturdy performance that would be hailed as Oscar-worthy if it were rendered by an actress blessed with lower expectations. For his part, however, Pitt fails to make the most of a meaty role, spending most of the film channeling a lazy Southern accent and staring off into space from beneath a patina of wigs and aging makeup.

The only thing that ameliorates the excruciating 167-minute running time is the visual sensibility of director David Fincher (Se7en; Zodiac), who paints a lush, imaginative canvas, beginning with a sublime prologue about a blind artisan who, after losing his son in the Great War, builds a giant clock that runs backward for the New Orleans train station. On the other hand, time seems to stand still during the film’s many dull sections, particularly the present-day framing device of an elderly Daisy on her death bed as her daughter reads Benjamin’s story aloud from his diary, all against the backdrop of an encroaching Hurricane Katrina. Curious, indeed.