Will Schmaltzy 'Benjamin Button' Win Oscar's Top Prize?

Sentimental favorite "Button," like "Titanic" and "Gump," could win best pic.

February 18, 2009, 5:39 PM

Feb. 19, 2009— -- Schmaltz is due a return at the Oscars.

After the award for best picture went to Scorsese's gangster epic, "The Departed," in 2007 and the Coen brothers' brilliantly suspenseful "No Country For Old Men" last year, one of the front-runners for this year's star prize is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Directed by David Fincher, "Button" is the tale of a man called Benjamin -- played by Brad Pitt -- who is born old but grows younger and, along the way, finds love.

The plot runs from the end of World War I to 2005. Doing so takes almost three hours, which may just help secure the prized Academy Award.

"One milieu of nominated films is that they're long," said public relations guru Michael Levine. "If your ass is sore by the end of the movie, then it'll probably do well at the Academy."

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1921 short story of the same name, "Button" does not disguise that its intentions are to leave no dry eye in the theater. While in Fitzgerald's story, Benjamin becomes bored with his aging wife and leaves her to spend many nights alone, Fincher's Benjamin only leaves so as not to be a burden on her as he grows younger.

Eschewing any degree of selfishness in the lead character and replacing it with Benjamin's innocent growth makes Fincher's message -- the big picture of Life -- hard to swallow for some.

"I was underwhelmed," said Alexa Dedlow, a consultant at Interscope Records' TV and film division. "The film was trying throughout to be sentimental, especially at the end when the baby (Benjamin) died. They really wanted to make you cry, but to me, it was all just a bit weird."

There's no escaping the so-called Ick Factor in "Button." Evident throughout, especially when the woman who raises Benjamin -- overplayed by Taraji Henson -- is on screen, it crescendos in the closing moments when a hummingbird, burdened with significance throughout the film, hits a hospital window. Cue tears from some, the rolling of eyes from others.

"It's hard to suspend belief when the deformed old man becomes the most beautifully chiseled man in the world (Pitt) and in the next scene gets acne," Dedlow told ABC News. "I understand he's going from older to younger, but the ugly to beautiful transition wasn't exactly conducive to likeability."

Originality is certainly not where "Button" -- produced at a reported cost of $150 million -- is going to pick up points. The 1970s TV show "Mork and Mindy" featured Robin Williams as an alien from the planet Ork, whose inhabitants grew younger with each passing day.

"Titanic," the 1997 best picture winner, was another technological tour de force where, like "Button," the saccharine love story takes second place to the special effects.

Then there are the accusations that "Button" is little more than a formulaic movie with a striking resemblance to "Forrest Gump." No surprise there, since both films share the same screenwriter, Eric Roth.

Like the characters, Forrest and Benjamin, who triumph over adversity, none of the criticisms of the movie stopped "Button" from receiving 13 Academy Award nominations or from grossing nearly $27 million on its opening weekend in the United States and just over $241 million at the box office worldwide since its release Dec. 25, 2008.

Though those numbers pale in comparison to what "The Dark Knight" has taken in, starting with $158 million on its U.S. debut weekend, the Academy's best picture panel has made sure it won't have to contend with Batman or any other superhero.

Despite having raised the hackles of more than a few, "Button" has received a fair critical reception overall. Those that like it are effusive.

"It's an amazing movie on many levels," said Howard Bragman, founder of public relations agency Fifteen Minutes. "We live in a short attention span society where anything over 89 minutes confuses people, but this movie combined storytelling and technological filmmaking in a remarkable way.

"Some won't connect with the movie, but I found Brad's performance and the complexity of the whole thing mightily impressive," added Bragman, who represented Monica Lewinsky during the Clinton scandal.

Whether "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is regarded as a profoundly moving masterpiece or sentimental slop depends entirely upon what one looks for in a movie.

However, while the Academy apparently shares the former opinion, it will be a surprise if it can take best picture ahead of favorite "Slumdog Millionaire."