The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is directed by David Fincher. Initially, this seems unlikely. Fincher's artistic appetite has been markedly darker than much of the whimsy that populates Benjamin Button. Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, Fincher somehow manages to bring almost none of the pitch-black subversiveness to the romantic tale he and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth relate while simultaneously bedimming the brightest portion of the apologue in one extended mattress-dwelling montage late in the picture accompanied by melancholic voice-over. Admittedly, Fitzgerald's 1922 short story was less direct and unequivocal about its author's equally afflictive and wholly uncomfortable relationship with materialism than his legendary The Great Gatsby or The Diamond as Big as the Ritz—whose titular promise strikes at the heart of the rampant materialistic vein against which Fitzgerald staunchly wrote.
As crafted by Roth and screen story-credited Robin Swicord, the screenplay with which Fincher works seems indebted to some of the more suspect Oscar-winners of the 1990s such as Titanic and the aforementioned Gump, the latter of which may have served to provide the framing device of an old woman near death's doorstep reminiscing on the glorious past of her lover. For greater dramatic effect and symbolism—a staggering washing away of the past—the “contemporary” setting is placed against the background of the oncoming Hurricane Katrina. A bothersome television monitor in the hospital at which this old woman, Daisy, is preparing to perish in the company of her thirty-seven-year old daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond) repeatedly informs the audience of the hurricane's movements. Roth and Fincher do not allow the accessory to distract too much, but it is manipulative and unnecessary nevertheless.
Cate Blanchett plays Daisy (a name that immediately connotes springtime and earthly renewal as well as paying homage to the object of Gatsby's desire in The Great Gatsby), the great love of Benjamin Button's life. As played by Brad Pitt, Benjamin is perpetually informed by the people nearest to his orbit. Born with the decrepitude of an old man, the child Benjamin is taken to a house of “Negroes” by his father in New Orleans only moments after his birth. The allusion to Moses taken in by “the other,” and a little later the Biblical references in a black church (Acts 14:3 emblazoned on a banner in the background, referring to “sings and wonders...” to come through the hands of those who speak boldly upon the Lord) seem to initially cast Fitzgerald's tale in Judeo-Christian tinting. Yet as the film progresses, Fincher takes Benjamin on a more tellurian, and, indeed, physical journey.
It is in that continual emphasis on the physical that Fincher remains. When those who question Fincher's fingerprints on the picture opine their consideration, the answer must come that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button displays—for better and worse—the tonal instincts of its director. Fincher's best films, Se7en and Zodiac—and especially the latter—succeeded so smashingly because they played perfectly into the filmmaker's prismatically sealed obsessiveness. The more Fincher adds to his body of work, the more apparent it becomes that for all of his considerable talent, he has yet to surpass the tonal confinements that practically define the essence of his finest and culminating oeuvre. That helps when Fincher's art is directly irradiated by the subject matter—two entirely different policemen united in their objective in Se7en; a man finding his past brought to the present with devilish relish by an uncontrollable corporate conspiracy (The Game); a curious man driven by puzzles seeking out the identity of a notorious serial killer (Zodiac).
Yet Fincher and his screenwriters have opened up the saga of Benjamin Button to the point where Fincher's best attribute is turned against him. Panic Room was a minor movie in which Fincher tried to summon visual importance out of outre and vainglorious camera movements and CGI configurations. Fincher's blunt visual language likewise was perfect for the uniformly downcast Se7en. Yet spurts of Fincher's conceptual workings portray a filmmaker with a solid grasp of his own strengths made occasionally frustratingly literal or at least undistinguished from earlier films. To convey the passage of time in Zodiac, Fincher allows the screen to become a window through which the viewer watches the CG construction of the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco over the course of a few seconds. This is an interesting bit of cinematic shorthand, and in its own way far more meaningful than the hypocritical and almost paralyzed-by-pretense closing imagery of Fight Club, yet Fincher deploys an assortment of vistas and almost visional panaceas meant to take the viewer's breath away in Benjamin Button that, for all of their grandiosity, tend to veer toward the perfunctory.
With a story that should be sweepingly biographical—considering Roth's massive screenplay and the film's final running time—Fincher's technique tends to make all of the hills and valleys play out as flat. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are naturally interesting, yet Kubrick's pictures, concerned as they were with the disintegration of the humanity of human beings, followed the arc with a keen direness that eloquently described the tragedy at his films' foundation. Fincher's films tend to close themselves off, denominating the very sequestered protagonists in the changeless epitome of the pictures' portraitures. Taking Fitzgerald's short story and expanding on it to the point of creating a chimerical biographical account, Fincher is unable to properly convey the most bottomless sorrows and stratospheric highs of his main character. Instead, he and Roth rely on one of the great crunches of cinema history to describe how people—and especially Benjamin—felt about what was happening to them: nearly ceaseless voice-over. Narrated, in a way, by three different people (Benjamin through his diary; Caroline, reading Benjamin’s words to Daisy; the old woman supplying the joining parts occasionally missing from Benjamin’s written history), the film finds itself placed at the mercy of Roth's effectualness as a screenwriter.
Roth's writing is normally well-structured, if nothing else, and Benjamin Button is broken up in three cleanly arranged acts. The first takes up the film's first hour, expiring when Benjamin leaves his old habitat overseen by his adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, who, in a way, seems to know what kind of film she is in, gesticulating with a theatricality otherwise limited to Blanchett's truly “mesmerizing”—as Benjamin once calls it—dancing as Daisy). The second, middling both in quality and placement, advances Benjamin’s story as a sailor with an avuncular and charismatic Captain Mike, to his brief but memorable affair with an English woman living in a Russian hotel played with palpable acuity and restraint by Tilda Swinton. The third details the meeting of Benjamin and Daisy, colliding in age the way people meant for one another do so, only with attendant complications arising from Benjamin's curious condition.
Roth's leitmotifs are made apparent, repeatedly, almost to exhaustion. The comparisons to his Forrest Gump cannot be dismissed. When Benjamin Button is at its most prosaic, the film seems like Forrest Gump in its best dress. Benjamin is amazed by the appearance of a hummingbird, far out at sea and relates it in a wondered awe that recalls Tom Hanks' simple appreciation of seemingly all things. Roth once again portrays the woman as selfish, wanton and pushy—all the while knowing that the man followed by his screenplay through thick and thin is The One.
Rather than self-destruct through drugs in a long, torturous stint as an agitating counterculture chick, Daisy is a dancer who, Roth seems to insist, has allowed her success to go to her head. At age twenty-three she dismisses Benjamin's efforts to, as he says, “sweep [her] off [her] feet,” enjoying her bubbly, meaningless dalliances while he stoically stews in the shadows. Again moments of syrupy ruminations on death (rather than cultural icons and politicians being “shot” in Gump, characters close to Benjamin die out while he de-ages through the twentieth century) populate the narrative, almost from the beginning, unfortunately missing the key ingredient of Fitzgerald's wit. Fitzgerald's famous statement, “After all, life hasn't much to offer except youth, and I suppose for older people, the love of youth in others,” may in its own dimensional context serve as a springboard for the story, but Roth and Fincher seem at a loss as to what to say about this condition except a long-winded version of, “Too bad it's all this way, but there's nothing you can do about it, so just keep living through it.”
That message grows tiresome. In a way, it's no less patronizing than Forrest Gump's (which, it has often been said, exalted the virtue of being sufficiently stupid to always enjoy life). It cannot be a coincidence that Roth transfers Forrest's condition as a threat against his progeny to Benjamin's worry that his child will be born like he was. It is a legitimate avenue on which to narratively travel and yet both the screenplay and Fincher's direction are unable to engrossingly illustrate the contentment of parenthood Benjamin says he feels. The aforementioned mattress montage, which seems to somehow exemplify the tuned-out happiness of the 1960s, including the Beatles on television, describes the gleeful repletion that the luckiest in the world fleetingly experience. Fincher tries his hand at romance and the audience believes in it because the words Pitt and Blanchett speak are delivered with such earnestness but his pictorial representations of the unrequited and then finally completely reciprocal love between the two never entirely convince.
Fincher's picture does not lack some bright spots. Blanchett gives one of her better performances. She is playing a person, not an avatar or representation as in The Aviator. Fincher is able to balance Daisy's dual role as aesthetically-minded artistic dancer and as something approximating Benjamin's own beckoning green light. Blanchett steals the film, and glows with a warmth that suggests the acclaim that sometimes seems closely related to puffery is not undeserved. Perhaps, however, some of her excelling screen presence is made all the more evident by the corresponding vacuity presented by Pitt. Whether adorned by old-age make-up or driving his motorcycle at his true pretty boy stage, Pitt never registers. There is a difference between underplaying and simply not making anything of an impact to the character. Fincher seems to keep Pitt on a tight leash, and the actor seems perfectly fine trusting in the director's strategy.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not desultory, it simply never surpasses the surface patina polish of Fincher's CG recreations of naval warfare, space shuttles and cityscapes. Nor the admittedly fascinating work done on Pitt himself, who seems to briefly strive to make something of an impression underneath all of the artifice. Ironically it is when he is again completely recognizable that he slips into his lazy on-screen persona, recently left behind when he played Jesse James as a ghostly specter avenging his own sins. That describes much of the film itself. There are fits and starts, sequences that are compelling by themselves. The film never congeals, it never formulates beyond the “and then this happened” linear one-two-three storytelling. Many aspects, including the latter name of Benjamin's and its origins—and the very role of buttons supposedly drawn by the humorously buttoned studio logos—are touched upon with all of the fervor of a weary parent reading a story to their child for the fourth time in a row. Roth and Fincher, and Pitt, are in a profound way hamstrung by the very high-budgeted dazzle that has received so much attention. Lost beneath the surface is Fitzgerald's own Benjamin Button.