David Fincher has always enjoyed taking on pretty extreme, often ambitious projects. He adapted Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, a mind-bending thriller about secret underground organizations that beat the hell out of each other. And he put together an engrossing, epic procedural based on the serial killings in 1970s San Francisco (Zodiac). But no film he’s made thus far has had the scope or vision of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, wherein the titular Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born, just at the end of WWI, with the body of an “80 year old man” (so concludes the doctor) and destined to age backwards, getting younger while those around him go in the opposite direction.
Based (very loosely I’m told) on a skeletal F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Fincher’s film begins in August of 2005, with Daisy (Cate Blanchett, smothered in old age make-up) dying in a New Orleans hospital bed as Hurricane Katrina fast approaches. In a gruff, heavily-accented wheeze, Daisy implores her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), to read aloud from a diary, that of curious Benjamin himself. This establishes the film’s clunky framing device. Typical of an Eric Roth screenplay (the man behind the dopey, over-praised Forrest Gump), this Princess Bride-like crutch isn’t exactly needed, nor is Benjamin’s dry voiceover, but both do serve, at least at first, to establish the film as a dark fairy tale, a tone complemented further by Fincher’s inky, clouded visuals. Button begins like a Grimm fantasy — newborn Benjamin is left on the doorstep of a convalescent home and found there by a maid, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who adopts him as her own — and gradually evolves into something more strange and, eventually, beautiful, haunting even. So it’s almost fitting that the film feels a bit outlandish and fake during its first half, where Benjamin, his aged and wrinkly face a CGI-rendered replication of Brad Pitt’s own, interacts with others in an episodic fashion, each acquaintance dropping little nuggets of philosophy (ala Gump), none more thematic than Queenie’s hallowed mantra: “You never know what’s comin’ for ya” (which explains, but does not justify, the implication of Hurricane Katrina).
It’s not until Button’s second half — around the time Benjamin reaches middle age, emerging as the perfect realization of male beauty that is Brad Pitt — that the film begins to feel like more than just a fairy tale. It becomes closer to a profound meditation on the passing of time and the fleeting nature of youth. Throughout, Pitt is almost laboriously stoic, which should’ve put a lid on all those ridiculous indictments claiming Button to be a Pitt vanity project. Like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford last year (another nearly-three hour, indulgently titled Pitt vehicle), Button is not a showcase for the Hollywood actor. Instead, it’s merely an indulgent film with Pitt in it, playing his part to the specifications of the role. It’s not a flashy performance — it doesn’t deserve an Oscar nomination, for sure — it’s an adequately passive one, which the film calls for. If only wish the same could be said of Cate Blanchett, one of the best actresses working today, and the name that most likely pulled viewers into the theater more than any other. The actress is, unfortunately, anything but natural in Button, as her interpretation of Daisy — a self-centered snob eventually humbled by a fateful accident — is stiff and overly dramatic, taking the broad outline of her character to extremes, and smoothing out any subtleties. It’s uncharacteristic of the actress to give a performance this distractingly forced, and perhaps Button‘s biggest disappointment.
Luckily, it’s the scope of the story and the way in which it’s told that makes Button worthwhile. This is never more apparent than in the film’s second half, which contains the most striking visuals, and feels more like magic realism than fantasy. Whereas Button‘s prior focus had been Benjamin’s lonely travels, here the movie blossoms into a stirring romance, concerning the perhaps too-perfect love affair between Ben and Daisy — we buy into it anyway. “We’re almost the same age,” realizes Daisy in one scene, “We’re meeting in the middle,” and the two lovers admire their beauty in the mirror. Such a vain gesture sounds shallow, but in the case of these two, it’s the journey they’ve been set on to reach this moment that makes it so believable and touching.
Just as it’s the way that Fincher presents these scenes of fulfillment and visual beauty that makes Button such a work of art. This is exemplified best in one particular sequence where Daisy gazes out her kitchen window longingly at her lover, who embraces their new-born daughter, grasping a yellow balloon. As in one of 2008’s other great cinematic works (Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight Of The Red Balloon), the sequence, like the rest of the film, elegantly expresses the curious nature of time, and the value of fleeting passages in one’s life. Daisy gazes through the window — a kind of frame, in which to preserve the moment in memory — her child lets go of the balloon, and it drifts into the air as this moment of beauty inevitably ends. Like Benjamin’s earlier bedroom realization (“I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is”) the scene effortlessly, and earnestly, evokes our inability to stop or slow-down time; only to savor it while it lasts, which is all Ben and Daisy find themselves able to do. But Button is less a tragic lament and more a celebration of our ability to love and be loved, to live our lives in our own, distinctive ways. The final moments of the movie enforce this, as we’re shown images of the people Benjamin met throughout his life, all of whom affected his existence in one way or another. “Some people are artists,” Pitt narrates in his contented monotone, “some are mothers”; and some are film directors like David Fincher, with the ability to tell a unique, involving, and ambitious story with both technical proficiency and deep-seeded meaning.