The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008, David Fincher)

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RECOMMENDED

Sentimentality isn’t the first thing one expects from a David Fincher project. Of course, there are traces of buried emotion in the displaced protagonists of Se7en, Fight Club, and Zodiac, but on less celebrated projects like The Game and Panic Room, his stabs at deeper and lighter impulses seemed half-baked. Both of those films have something to do with the nature of family and how far protection of one’s loved ones can really extend, but neither moves past cinematic trickery into something deeply felt. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, filmed back to back with Zodiac (as part of a studio deal in which one film financed the other), begins to thwart this tendency: it’s actually a tearjerker that works the way it’s supposed to, and its gentle statements about the unlikeliness of love and the way people must leave us over time are clear-eyed and sweet-natured. Fincher used to be quoted in interviews going on about his “demons,” but there’s nothing of the sort in sight here.

Copped very, very loosely from a F. Scott Fitzgerald story, the script is quite apparently the work of Eric Roth, a Hollywood pro known for breaking through with the similarly mounted Forrest Gump. Roth is also capable of raw, true-to-life seriousness — The Insider and Munich being famed instances — but in this case, he is back in Gump mode. Roth and Fincher make a much better pair, though, than Roth and Robert Zemeckis; Roth’s slickly maudlin tendencies brush up against Fincher’s sense of style so that the movie doesn’t really feel like something either of them has done before. And certainly, the simple and episodic tale of a Brad Pitt aging backward — shot ingeniously with motion capture to create eerily convincing illusions — takes Fincher places he’s never gone, to the point that if you didn’t already know better, his closing directorial credit might be a surprise.

There’s not much to the tale as Roth envisions it other than: a boy, Benjamin, is born as a very old man and abandoned, then is raised by a sweet rest-home supervisor named Queenie (Taraji Henson, luminous in a thanklessly reductive role) surrounded by people strangely accepting of his ailment. But then, it’s all a bit unbelievable in a Back to the Future sort of way, which is to say its plausibility doesn’t matter much at all. As Benjamin grows older (younger), he finds love briefly with a spy’s wife (Tilda Swinton) and long-term with childhood sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett, who gives the strongest performance of the picture), with whom he has a daughter. Much of the languid story is concerned with the people surrounding Benjamin through the decades: the others in the rest home, his tugboat crew, his wife and child. And the deaths begin to come as Benjamin’s face grows younger and younger. His tale embodies an old Peanuts quote: Lucy asks why we teach babies to say “bye bye.” Charlie Brown responds: “Because for the rest of his life, people will be leaving him.” The story ends with the genuinely heartrending final rest of Button in Daisy’s arms as a baby. Everything is framed in flashback as a dying Daisy tells the story in a New Orleans hospital just before Katrina lays waste to much of the city.

To a degree, Benjamin Button is a collection of short films, and not only a highly subjective one but one framed specifically as a first-person project. The voiceover narration is presented as excerpts from Benjamin’s diary, and as such the great flaw here is that we never get to know him as well as we come to know the people around him. Queenie may be a stereotype, for instance, but she is far more real and weighty a character than Benjamin; the same for the intimately well-drawn Daisy, even though Pitt’s performance is beautifully restrained. Like Chance from Being There or Forrest Gump himself — or Leonard Zelig, even — he’s a blank slate on whom other, more vivid creatures leave their marks. Jared Harris’ splendidly evocative Captain Mike Clark, a tugboat captain fancying himself an artist, is one of the strongest examples. Other sequences, like Benjamin’s reunion with the father who abandoned him after his mother died during childbirth, seem to lack the emotional firepower they aspire to, particularly when the Buttons’ button factory is considered of enough importance to inspire a visual motif of the film but never seems all that vital to its characters. Despite the expansive length of 168 minutes, a great deal about the movie seems oddly rushed and absent of intricacy. Still, the strength of those secondary characters and stories is enough to, if nothing else, pack the project with an emotional wallop. Hollywood trickery it may be, but its cumulative effect is measured in tears, whether fully earned or not.

Technologically, Button is a nearly seamless, subtle triumph; only the curious experimentation with imitations of old-movie stylistics seems contrived. The digital camerawork that was so close to perfection in Zodiac is invisibly grand here; nothing about the sumptuous visuals comes across as sterile or artificial. The use of motion capture for Pitt at his various ages is the most resourceful application of that tool to date, although Greg Cannom’s Oscar winning makeup is an immense help. The performances are consistently great — Pitt works as hard here as he ever has and scores on minimalism; he’s always been enjoyable in David Fincher’s projects and this may be his most impressive performance aside from 12 Monkeys.

It’d be easy, though, to shoot holes through Button‘s emotional content, especially in close comparison to Forrest Gump; yet again, all of the answers lie in craft. Fincher may be operating a grand Hollywood experiment here, the level of disparity from his other movies often making it seem like it was made on a very expensive dare, but his obsessive fans will find far more to love here than they would have in Panic Room or The Game — Fincher’s visual sense is more fluid than ever, the five years prior to Zodiac apparently having given him the opportunity to develop massively as a filmmaker. Not one of the directorial or editorial choices made rings false or strained. But a lot of the movie’s blood comes not from this technical expertise but from Fincher’s sense of setting, something that’s never felt quite so pronounced in the past. Se7en, after all, made much of the coy anonymity of its location, and Zodiac spent a lot of time conjuring up fantasy versions of the past with digital greenscreening. Fincher’s New Orleans, however, is lived-in and meaty and real. Subtly political, even; watch the way the wind shakes the black church tent in the faith-healing sequence, a phenomenal scene that briskly touches magic while explicitly criticizing both religion and racism. The powerful, ornate beauty of the ingeniously utilized Louisiana locations is the extra feature that gives this broad, mildly syrupy story just the right touch of personality and imagination.

The wraparound sequences in the present day that depict Daisy as an old woman listening to her and Benjamin’s daughter reading the diary have been criticized for their culturally manipulative use of Katrina as a buildup object and emotional climax, the aching sadness of the floodwaters creeping in to destroy so much unexpectedly. That’s unfair because this is the purest manifestation of Fincher’s sense of setting and of collective pulse; it’s David Fincher as documentarian, the perfectly perverse bedfellow for Fincher the sudden Capra-copping populist. Whether it’s all firmly glued together or not, you feel satisfied and worn out with yearning by the end.

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