David Fincher is a god. Not a lesser deity, mind you, or some manner of false filmmaking prophet. No, this inside outsider may have gotten his start in music videos and suffered at the hands of a disgruntled studio while making his directorial debut (the oft-debated Alien3), but since those uneasy early days, his work has been nothing short of sensational. With a creative output claiming one masterwork (Se7en, The Game) after another (Fight Club, Zodiac), only mainstream commercial acceptance has truly alluded him (unless you count Panic Room).
All that might change with his Brad Pitt vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this may look like a blatant attempt to grab awards season consideration. Instead, it’s another notable notch in the man’s amazing auteur oeuvre.
Born into a turn of the century New Orleans, orphaned Benjamin Button is blessed/cursed with an unusual malady. As an infant, he looks nearly 90 years old. As a toddler, he’s in his 80s. As he gets older, his body ages in reverse, decades dropping off as the experiences pile up.
While living in a nursing home with his caregiver mother Queenie, he meets the granddaughter of another resident. Her name is Daisy, and Benjamin is instantly smitten. As time moves along, he holds onto his flame, even as he joins the merchant marines, aids in World War II, has an affair with a British woman (who wants to swim the English Channel) and returns home to Louisiana where he reconnects with his dying father.
Yet all along, all Benjamin can think about is Daisy. Her career as a ballerina cut short and her options limited, she soon finds herself drawn into her new partner’s curious case. It will be a relationship that inspires many wonderful memories, a lot of adventure, a few heartaches, and some significant deathbed secrets.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a film made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence – basic camera tricks, and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control.
But this is where Fincher shines: bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of a masterpiece.
It also helps to have amazing actors inhabit this world, and you can’t get much better than Pitt (as the title entity), Cate Blanchett (as lifetime love Daisy), Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adopted momma, and Julia Ormond as bookend offspring Caroline. Interspersed amongst the main threads are remarkable moments from Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Elias Koteas. Each one accents Fincher’s amazing images with their unique take on humanity and honesty.
At its center, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about the truth: the truth about living, the truth about dying, the truth about who you are, and the truth about who others find us to be. All throughout the film, secrets and stories are revealed, each one clarifying the people who populate them. In the end, the denouements build to a shattering emotional epiphany that ties everything together magnificently.
Certainly, the screenplay by Eric Roth mirrors his Oscar-winning adaptation of Forrest Gump, even down to a central symbol for birth/resurrection. But unlike that Robert Zemeckis fable, spun out of Southern comforting and a great deal of Tom Hanks definitive drawl, Fincher finds the darker side to this material. After all, when was the last time you saw a mainstream film deal with the impending death of an infant?
Remember, Benjamin ages backward, so the very youthful biology the industry tends to senseless celebrate actually becomes the harbinger for the arriving Grim Reaper. This is juxtaposed against Blanchett’s aged façade, holed up in a New Orleans hospital as Katrina is about to hit. The concept of placing the plot within the horrific events of 2005 may be locational happenstance, but it does work to underline the overall theme of life’s fascinating fragility.
In fact, the physical elements of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stand out as the film’s finest creative achievement. The early stages of Pitt’s “elderly” youth have an eerie provocation, while his last act teen façade is achingly Adonis-like in look. Blanchett gets an equally effective make-over, her turn as an adolescent ballerina and ’50s fashion plate remarkable in their picture-perfect, almost porcelain purity.
Fincher forces the audience to rethink their previous notions of age and vitality. When Benjamin visits a brothel for the first time, it’s not as some dirty old man. Instead, Pitt plays the moment just right, using raging teen hormones to accent his character’s withered looks. With the story that’s set inside a nursing home, there’s a lot of jokes made at the expense of the infirmed and enfeebled (one man gets seven silent film slapstick sequences, illustrating the number of times he’s been hit by lightning). But there is plenty of dignity here as well, times when what we become throughout the decades is discussed and redefined.
Yet in the end, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about celebrating your existence. It’s a statement on how a life lived – in any order – can be taken for granted and gone in an instant. As they move through the years, trying to connect and complete their unending love, Benjamin and Daisy discover something even more shocking about their interpersonal emotions: they can survive anything. Only time treats the couple like an interchangeable pair of enigmas, each owning their own unusual approach to being and being together.
The wistful qualities of the narrative, matched with Fincher’s frighteningly magnificent direction, turn something gimmicky into something grand. When the word ‘epic’ is tossed around, it’s an effort like that of those of all involved in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that supplies a perfect illustration. Destined to grow in critical acclaim as the years go by, this film represents Fincher at his finest. Gods rarely find a way to top themselves.