After sixteen years, David Fincher still has one of the best track records in all of cinema. With Fight Club and Se7en he more than secured his place in film history, and even his lesser works like The Game and Panic Room are extremely well made and more or less do what they set out to do. I had some issues with last year’s Zodiac (mostly the fault of the script), but it was so amazingly ambitious and well directed that it still managed to secure a place on my year end top ten list. In fact Fincher’s latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, shows that Zodiac was the beginning of a great new page in the filmmaker’s career.
The opens with a rather unusual prologue about a blind clockmaker who, out of grief for his son killed in the First World War, built a clock for the New Orleans train station that would tick backwards in (metaphorical) hope that time would go backwards and bring back the fallen soldiers. The day the war ends, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born “under unusual circumstances.” The baby boy is a brittle infant with wrinkled skin, a doctor who examines him say that if he didn’t know any better he would say the child was an old man at the end of his years. The boy’s father panics and abandons him on the steps of a nursing home, there he’s found and raised by an orderly named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who tells everyone that Benjamin is her nephew. It soon becomes apparent that as Benjamin grows in age, mentality and in stature, he is in fact becoming younger in appearance and vitality. Somewhere around age ten he meets Daisy (played by Elle Fanning at this age and later by Cate Blanchett) the daughter of one of the home’s inhabitants. They’re technically the same age but Benjamin looks significantly older then she does, all the same they fall in love at first sight. The film continues to chronicle Benjamin Button’s life from birth to death.
The film, loosely based on an obscure short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, seems to be a meditation on the phrase “youth is wasted on the young.” I’ve never been a fan of that phrase; the comeback I’ve developed to it is “retirement is wasted on the old.” Button’s childhood is never that great, he’s forced to live in a retirement home and is never really able to play with other children except Daisy. His old age isn’t great either, it would seem that the grass isn’t very green on either side of that fence. The truly good days of Benjamin’s life are the portions where he’s about 20 to 60, or rather 60 to 20, that’s the period where he’s physically and mentally able to truly enjoy life. One can tell why this view of life would appeal to 46 year old David Fincher, 47 year old Brad Pitt, and even to F. Scott Fitzgerald who was 25 when he wrote the story. Although it is likely a depressing thought for the 63 year old screenwriter.
Between this film and Zodiac, one can definitely and evolution in Fincher as an auteur. In Fincher’s pantheon, the film definitely has a close kinship with Zodiac. Both films cover a much larger scope then Fincher’s previous work which mostly consisted of stories told over the course of a few days or in a case of Fight Club maybe a year. Zodiac followed a criminal investigation over the course of about a decade, but this new film chronicles a man’s life a full eighty years. Like that film, this is sort of a story that kind of sits there existing. It’s characters do not have clear motivations that are accomplished by the end as one would see from a conventional seminar formulated screenplay. The challenge with such a story structure is that everything that the film shows needs to be pretty interesting, and sure enough it is.
First and foremost this film confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that David Fincher is an absolute master of his craft, not that anyone really doubted that to begin with. Like all of Fincher’s previous work, this film manages to tell its story with keen technological proficiency and inventive devices that keep the film energetic and fresh throughout it’s rather long run running time. Fincher has never been one to shy away from going using visually impressive set-pieces in order to further the story. A great example of this is a scene from Zodiac where time passage is shown by the newspaper headline scrolling across the walls, or another such scene were the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge is shown at a rapid pace. The same kind of trick is present in The Curious case of Benjamin Button as well. There’s a really nice scene where an event’s probability of happening is outlined as a series of coincidences, a montage that helps to destroy possible criticism about the random nature of the event. There’s also a really exceptional montage later in the movie, one of the best such montages I’ve ever seen to show the passage of time. These are the kind of special touches you get to expect from a David Fincher film. It’s also got a sea battle which is really, really, really top of the line.
One thing here that’s very different from Fincher’s previous work is its tone and subject matter. Fincher has long been known for really dark, gritty, R-rated movies like Fight Club and Se7en. No one in this film gets his fingers crushed into a door and there’s not a single head-in-a-box either. In fact there’s a sense of whimsy to the film that may feel more at home in a Spielberg film then a Fincher movie. This could have been a very bad thing, but Fincher never allows it to be. Whimsy is something that can quickly derail a movie if it isn’t earned; you really need to care about a story or else whimsy will just seem manipulative and lame. This never occurs here, all of the film’s whimsy is earned. From the strange prologue, through a running gag about lightning, to the haunting final shot, I think this completely manages to live up to all the “magic” so many Spielberg wannabes miss the mark on.
Technologically speaking, every element of the film is top of the line. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is straight up amazing, Alexandre Desplat provides a very appropriate score, and Donald Graham Burt’s production design is out of this world extraordinary. But the thing that makes this movie really stand out is the makeup and the visual effects that were used to make Benjamin Button the backward aging freak that he is. As a child/geezer, Button is played by a variety of stand-ins with names like Peter Donald Badalamenti, Robert Towers, and Tom Everett. What’s amazing is that I have no idea what point in the film Fincher stopped using stand-ins and started using Brad Pitt, the makeup is that seamless. This is simply the best aging makeup/technology I’ve ever seen. All of these amazing effects are there to serve the story, and it’s really nice to see a character drama being a medium for amazing special effects rather than some sort of comic book movie (not that there’s anything wrong with those).
Brad Pitt does everything he can to work through all the makeup, I think he does everything he needs to do for the role, but this isn’t really an actor centric movie and it doesn’t really lend itself to the really impressive kind of acting you’re going to see in something like Doubt. Benjamin Button is a fairly stoic character, one who’s forced to mature early and he doesn’t really emote greatly throughout the film. Blanchet doesn’t really have a whole lot to do either. Taraji P. Henson really stands out in the movie because she has a character that’s a bit easier to love then the more tortured leads.
The movie reminds me a whole lot of Stanley Kubrick’s massively underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon. The two films couldn’t be more different in tone, pacing, or style; but the underlying film is pretty similar. Both films chronicle the entire life of their title characters, for adventurous youths to domestic middle age, all the way to an old age in which the character’s problems finally catch up with them. They’re not individual stories so much as meditations about what the grand sum of a life can be. It’s a movie which will suck you in and have you transfixed on the cinema screen for its entire 159 minute runtime as long as you’re ready to take the ride.
**** out of Four