In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
Few types of stories are more inviting than the coming of age tale. They have all the hallmarks of a universal narrative punctuated by moments that are instantly familiar. Titles like Catcher in the Rye, Stand by Me, and The Breakfast Club capture the nervous excitement of a first kiss, the pang of heartbreak, and the red-faced embarrassment of making mistakes. Part of their allure is that they beg us to remember and to relate, a handshake with everyday life. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the closest thing David Fincher’s made to an Oscar drama, seeks to measure the grip of that handshake. It’s a film about a man (Brad Pitt) who ages in reverse, born old and grows young, seeing the world through a set of eyes unlike any other. In a case as curious as the title character, Fincher’s coming of age story isn’t a soft-spoken account of a young man wandering through fields, a rag-tag team of kids causing trouble, or high schoolers bonding through detention; it’s about death. And, equally as curious, it’s a love story. What we’re left with is a contradictory and inconsistent film, but one that’s relentlessly beautiful in its telling of what is at once morbid and lovely.
Ben Button has a lot of firsts for Fincher, starting with Eric Roth’s rambling, nonlinear, and long-winded script. We begin in a cold hospital, color graded to look like a sad rainbow, all shades of blue. It is 2005 New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina is nipping at the heels of the coast threatening to wash everyone away. An old woman, Cate Blanchett disguised under what must have been hours sitting in the makeup chair to add every aged wrinkle and liver spot, lies on her death bed. She’s immodestly remorseful — contemplative — and each syllable she strains to say reveals a library of recollections. Death and the baggage we bring with us is always on the film’s mind. Upset in the room with her is her daughter (Julia Ormond), who apparently didn’t spend as much time getting to know her mom as she should have. The film’s central narrative, the one people paid tickets to see, is birthed from this framing device in flashback. We’re transported back to the night the Great War ended, the first of the many historical episodes that became ordinary in Benjamin’s extraordinary life.
November 11th, 1918, is immediately registered as authentic, jettisoning the stark blues of the hospital and greeting us with welcoming golden hues. We’re in the past, and it is home. A baby is born, disfigured and unwanted, left at the doorsteps of an old folk’s home. His proxy mother, played with earthy gravitas by Taraji P. Henson, takes him in and showers him with two things in equal measure: love and folksy wisdom. The latter is a soapbox for platitudes like, “You never know what’s comin‘ to you,” lines that have only the illusion of meaning. Roth, who also wrote the structurally similar Forrest Gump, tries and tries to replace his “Life is like a box of chocolates” line from that film, but his snobbish truisms hurt a film already struggling to convince us of its depth. It’s the cast and director that ultimately pull us in, and Henson plays here earth-mother part so convincingly that the ingredients of bean stew would sound like a profound and comforting revelation. Pitt gives one of his best performances, flawlessly personifying the delicate whimsy of Benjamin. Blanchett, too, is extraordinary, playing the many shades of Daisy with effortless grace. She and Pitt have rarely been more beautiful to look at.
Normally, a Fincher film is a painting of fastidious exactness, using actors, tone, and style as different colored brushstrokes on his cinematic canvas. But in Benjamin Button, Fincher forgets which foot to put forward. Films like Se7en and Zodiac are on an emotional wavelength that treats emotion like a tenable thing, but the unashamed mawkishness of Roth’s script forces Fincher to speak in a second language, and he isn’t fluent. The oddball cast of characters is more the idea of a person than actual human beings, like the immensely enjoyable tugboat captain for which Benjamin works. Jared Harris gives a jaw-dropping, transformative performance as a (often drunk) sailor, one who acts as a punch line for comic relief while also providing yet another platitude: you have to do what you have to do. Characters, fun and diverse as they are, are plot devices with big “knowing” mouths, brought to life by actors that perform with genuine humanity.
There is one stunning exception. Benjamin Button is ceaseless in its entertainment, but there are only a few moments that truly sing. The film bursts to life when Benjamin meets a “plain,” married British woman (played with spectacular nuance and eroticism by Tilda Swinton) while in Russia. They share a romance, and you can feel the film’s cold heart beat. The centerpiece romance, which I have deliberately avoided discussing, also captures this sentiment.
Benjamin Button, it can be said, is the first Fincher film meant to be a spectacle. It’s his biggest budget by far, a lavish production costing 150 million. It isn’t that Fincher doesn’t know how to command a project of this size -- he does -- it’s that his ice-cold cinematic eye is repellent to the tone the material needed. He’s forced to use the device of the Spielberg Face, with characters gawking in amazement at Benjamin to remind everyone of the tremendous makeup and computer effects that show Brad Pitt as a 60-year-old in adolescence and a 10-year-old with dementia. They have a right to goggle. It’s an amazing accomplishment, but the film’s visual vocabulary isn’t vast. His characteristic style of smooth panning and an almost always still camera, with the editing jumping from angle to angle with a rapid rhythm, couldn’t be worse suited for a narrative meant to inspire. He imposes control and rigidity onto a story bursting to the seams with life. We needed an excited camera willing to embellish wonder for the audience. The genre boils down not only to a coming of age story for Benjamin but also as magic realism. Feeling that “magic” is rare.
Seldom are the moments Fincher lets his style seem flexible, and the best of them is a gorgeously shot, heart-pounding naval battle between a tugboat and a submarine. In fact, scenes that are primarily visual are some of the best of Fincher’s career. A date with Benjamin and his true love is composed with a voiceover, uniting a series of constant fade-ins and fade-outs, a beautiful symbol for how two people fall into each other even while they’re apart. In the film’s best scene, we see how a web of interconnected life events collapses on a devastating conclusion. Had the tiniest thing been different, tragedy would have been evaded. It’s possibly Fincher’s most beautifully photographed film, and Claudio Miranda’s cinematography looks as though he brought vintage photographs to life. The visual majesty on display here recalls one of the highest compliments to a cinematographer: you could pause the film at any moment and frame it on a wall.
One wonders what the premise hoped to accomplish. Benjamin’s new pair of eyes didn’t uncover hidden truths of life, love, or death, and it’s likely he left the world as ignorant as the rest of us. His experience seems to be a device in itself, meant to cause reflection in the audience. In a sense, this is the core of the coming of age story, albeit manifesting in a peculiar way. But it’s almost entirely the product of the performances, direction, and the script’s preoccupation with powerful themes that give the film its real resonance. They aren’t ever articulate, and they don’t have a shred of complexity, but it touches, if only by the fingertips, what living life is like. That’s a powerful thing.
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