David Fincher, who has utilized a seemingly endless wealth of creative visual language in such varied meditations on the masculine condition as “Fight Club” and “Zodiac,” strips his soul bare and becomes an American art-house director of tremendous strength, grace, and complexity in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
Devoid of the director’s usual gamesmanship and visual playfulness, “Button” announces itself a far more intimate and focused piece of filmmaking. Lightly adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), the historical fantasy tells the life story of Benjamin Button, a man cursed to age backwards eighty years.
Roth’s screenplay relies on an occasionally awkward and melodramatic framing device, and occasionally feels gimmicky in its structure, especially towards the end of the film, where the otherwise subtle film slips dangerously close to melodrama.
However, Fincher makes a strong case for digital film to be taken seriously as an advancement in cinematic technology. The marvelous visual effects seamlessly turn Brad Pitt from 80 to 20 without ever feeling intrusive, showing profound leaps in the dramatic capabilities of subtle and emotional use of computer graphics.
Nothing feels misplaced in cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s exquisite photography. “Button” feels designed based on a steady system of lines, and Fincher is careful to construct his film out of the shape of bodies, the space of a room, the direction and bend of lights, and – most importantly – the lines of faces.
The lighting and framing of the film is so dynamic, so gorgeous that it is only amplified by Fincher’s notorious attention to detail, manifest in the sumptuous production and costume design.
In this visual study of lines, the most important and the most explored are the intersecting lines of time and of lives. Benjamin’s line runs parallel and conversely to his world, and the film ruminates heavily on the lifelong crisis of self this causes.
In a film whose external aesthetics are so superlative, its real power rests on an internal exploration of character; “Button” is less a narrative and more a focused if fantastical character study revolving around death, decay and choice
Brad Pitt, who remains rather underrated as a dramatic actor despite his immense superstardom, is nothing but transcendent as Benjamin. With an aching sadness that reflects the weight of the world, Pitt’s subdued work is captive and commanding while emotionally hushed and complex. While it would be easy to be lost in the sea of make-up, Pitt turns Benjamin into a lost soul. He allows the complexities and personal crises of aging backwards to be understood and empathized with, making the fantastical character a complete emotional realization as opposed to a quirky and outlandish creation.
The largest flaw in the film is Eric Roth’s screenplay, which contains alternate moments of dramatic beauty and conventional drama. In equal doses, he operates on an unexpected level of simple depth, and also almost conventionally romantic to the point where several key moments feel forced or inescapably unnecessary against the rest of the work. This tendency to feel both graceful and clunky is most frequent in Benjamin’s lifelong love affair with Daisy (a glowing Cate Blanchett, who also portrays her character from early 20s through her 80s).
There is an inescapable and pervasive melancholy to the world of “Benjamin Button.” David Fincher realizes the more profound issues in the story have to do with death and time. Dramatically the film is very much concerned with the concept of death and the intersection of time, the creation of short-lived opportunities.
As it mounts momentum in its nearly three hours of runtime, “Benjamin Button” comes to be less a celebration of life and more a mourning for its transience.
There may be moments that fall flat, that feel overly sentimental and constructed for narrative convenience more than anything else. There are also moments where the film goes too far in trying tug into us, and that may rob it of some its quieter force.
That said, the sheer aesthetic accomplishment, the drive and the dare and the ambition, the drama and the fantasy, the simultaneous complex and distilled emotions make “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” that supreme rarity in mainstream, contemporary cinema – a film worth soaking in, worth savoring, worth dissecting, and worth thinking about.
There are increasingly fewer films that just seem to exist for us to pass through, films that provide meditations and problems without feeling the need to provide answers. They exist as proof that the medium can operate as an art form. Even at its most conventional and most uneven, most of its flaws can be forgiven, for “Benjamin Button” reminds of that special kind of elemental force.