Sunday, September 26, 2010

Second Thoughts: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

With the wide release of David Fincher's hotly anticipated The Social Network less than a week away, I decided to go back and watch some of the other films of one of my favorite modern directors. For reasons I cannot fully elucidate, I decided to revisit The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Now, my original review of the film is enthusiastic but, characteristic of my early reviews (especially the ones written for my school paper), the arguments are ill-formed because of the tight word limit and my own inexperience. Furthermore, soon after writing the review, my opinion on the film cooled considerably. While I still loved the aesthetic of the film, the howls of "Forrest Gump-ian tripe" started to find their mark, and when the experience wore off, so too did the zeal.

Thus, my decision to revisit the film came more as a curiosity than a burning desire to return to Fincher's three-hour opus, yet whatever the motivation, the result was worth it. Even when I embraced the film, I did not realize just how moving The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is, nor did I even grasp the extent of Fincher's visual style. His deep focus photography has always emphasized detail, but here he films events elliptically, deftly turning what is frankly another self-important script from Gump scribe Eric Roth into something poetic, the polar opposite of Zemeckis' travesty.

Button, like Gump, centers the action on a character who exists to be a gimmick more than a human being in his own right. Where Forrest was mentally challenged, Benjamin is born an old man and ages backward. Clearly a cipher, Ben walks through the post-World War I America without understanding the importance of the world around him. The same was true of Forrest, but the key difference is that Forrest Gump made up for the cluelessness of its character by bludgeoning the audience with reminders that everything the Baby Boomers touched turned to gold (except for that whole "everything after 1969" thing).

Fincher does not take that route. Now, Benjamin Button does take itself seriously, but it is not nearly as ponderous as some claim. Rather than focus on World War II, the depression, the birth of the '60s or any moment in the five decades or so that receive serious screentime in the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is as elliptical and ephemeral as its reverse-aging protagonist. That the film should start with a flashback to a story wholly unrelated to the narrative, of a clockmaker who made a town square clock that ran backward in the anguished hope that it might bring back his son killed in the war, offers an immediate hint that Fincher is after something more than the trumpeting and bloviating of Gump. The shot of soldiers in the trenches of France being played backward so fallen boys rise again and those blown apart by mortar fire reconstitute into a fresh-faced, whole teenager is hauntingly poetic.

When the film finally moves to Benjamin's story, no single moment matches the power of this separate opening, but Fincher dissipates the style across the decades of Ben's life. The director stages Ben's birth as if opening an old horror picture, withholding the sight of a newborn baby as the horrified father looks down upon his child and immediately rushes out of the room with it. Before the man can drown the child in the river, a constable wanders by and, in a panic, the man dumps the child on the nearest doorstep and runs to console himself. The owners return and find the baby, at last revealing the horror: it looks like an old man.

Fitzgerald's short story, unconcerned with any remote medical plausibility, posited Benjamin as a man born not only aged like a man but with a wizened brain that retained less as his life continued. Fincher complicates matters: Benjamin is born with cataracts and extreme arthritis, but his brain is that of an infant's, incapable of speech or thought process. Later in life, he's intelligent, but he suffers from Alzheimer's making his brain match his youthful late-age appearance -- as someone dealing with an Alzheimer's grandfather, I can say all too painfully that the childish impudence of the old Ben is not a stretch.

The normal mental growth of Benjamin, when juxtaposed against the reversed aging process, allows for a nuanced form of acting, which Brad Pitt provides with surprising sincerity. Many would claim that Pitt's performance relied chiefly on the work of others who digitally inserted his face onto the bodies of various doubles meant to play Benjamin through his youthful frailty and the physical rejuvenation that comes with his old age, and I suspect even that this line of thinking might be responsible for Pitt's Oscar nomination. Yet one must watch him closely, as the film depends as much on the subtlety with which he plays his part as it does on the majesty of Fincher's visuals.

As Ben's body, withered and miniature, cannot match the youthful curiosity of his mind, Pitt's face displays a constant wonder at everything outside the nursing home where his adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), works. His inactivity gives him the time to educate himself, but he's still a child, his enthused reaction at the arrival of a young girl, Daisy (Cate Blanchett, in her adult years), communicates just how lonely he felt previously. When his body strengthens enough, Benjamin gets work on a tugboat, and the banality of his occupation does not match the joyous zeal with which Ben takes to his odd jobs of washing bird shit off the deck and other menial tasks. Likewise, a boyish glee breaks through the excellent aging makeup when the tugboat captain takes him to a brothel or gives the man-boy his first taste of alcohol.

Pitt's performance roots the character in the prosaic despite his fantastical biology, and that push-pull between the two moods defines the film, often to its benefit, occasionally to its detriment. With his limitless digital canvas, Fincher creates a film that owes to deeply classical filmmaking, from a subtle use of character makeup à la Citizen Kane to the melodrama of its narrative. But he also creates a work that could not exist in classical filmmaking. With CGI, Fincher can emphasize the insignificance of the tugboat as it drags a behemoth liner, a boat so big that you don't even notice it at first because it cannot fit into the frame even in an extreme long shot. Never has digital been used in so subtle and graceful a manner.

That fluidity informs Fincher's approach to the material. In anyone else's hands, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button might well have been as odious as Forrest Gump. But Fincher shoots elliptically, traversing time in such an understated fashion that he breaks the film from its flawed foundation. This is a film that, for all its Old Hollywood melodrama and modern digital flash, that understands humanity. Those trying to unpack themes can be forgiven, since the film is constructed in such a way that it screams Big Idea, but its focus is more personal. Key to life is the way that nothing makes sense until it slips out of hand. The film's most beautiful shot -- an adult Daisy seducing Ben with a ballet in the fog -- screams with sensual enticement, but only when Benjamin hesitates and loses his chance to be with Daisy for the next decade does he (or the audience) fully appreciate the moment.

Some of the supporting actors understand this sense of ephemera, of the inevitability of loss and regret. The two most lauded performances in the film, those of Blanchett and Henson, are perhaps the least remarkable. Both are trapped in narrowly defined roles, Henson of the good-natured, spiritual black mother, Blanchett of the flighty young woman who loves our hero but looks for an excuse to get out and experience other pleasures before settling down. Jason Flemying portrays Benjamin's biological father, who reconnects with his son as a means of penitence, as a pitiable man who could not handle the strain of losing his wife in childbirth only to face the prospect of raising this genetic anomaly by himself. He withholds any big speeches of sorrow and regret, instead meeting Benjamin during his tugboat days and striking up a friendship before quietly leaving behind all his wealth to his son. Jared Harris has great fun as the tugboat captain, and he manages to temper his endearing vulgarity to prevent himself from turning into Lieutenant Dan. Best of all is Tilda Swinton, who plays the wife of an ambassador. When Benjamin meets her in a hotel, she seems the stereotypically uppercrust British woman, but Swinton immediately fills the character with warmth and sympathy, not waiting to spring it on us after being cold for a half-hour. She is the only character who recognizes how fleeting everything is, and her heartbroken look at the realization that her time with Benjamin will end as quickly as it began is as wrenching as the conclusion of Benjamin's story.

Let us be clear: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has serious issues, not least of which is the framing device set on the eve of Hurricane Katrina that forces Blanchett to make some awful acting choices and continuously interrupts the narrative for no discernible reason. If Fincher had developed the idea more, he could have tied New Orleans' fate to the the central idea of life's atmosphere of fleeting disquiet, but as it is, the framing device is just a distraction. The script really does retread Forrest Gump in numerous ways, and only the masterful hand of the director steers the story away from the rocks. But it is that hand that makes the film so rewarding, so tantalizing, so perfectly frustrating in the way it captures the frustration of life. Who else would insert the emotional moment of Benjamin helping Captain Mike shuffle off this mortal coil after the tugboat is attacked by a U-boat, and then interrupt it by showing a German consoling his own dying comrade on the broken hull of the sub? If Fincher cannot fully reconcile the grandeur of his visual élan with the simplicity (not simple-mindedness) of his storytelling, he comes closer than others could be expected to and makes art out of a gimmick. For all its issues, it is this film above all others that confirms the emotional motivation of Fincher's oeuvre and has me more convinced than ever that he could make a quasi-thriller about Facebook into a great film.


  1. So, I got my hands on the Criterion copy of this dvd that includes a 3-hour making-of doc that goes into a lot of detail. Must admit that after watching that, and listening to Fincher's commentary track, I like the film more than I did when it was released.

    As you say, still flawed - but quite decent.

  2. The Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray is crazy-stacked. I revisited this film precisely because I found the Blu in a bargain bin and got it for less than 10 bucks. The documentary is terrific and Fincher is one of the best commentary providers around, and that really helped me, though I turned around just from watching it again before diving into the extras.

  3. Despite the fact that I was largely underwhelmed by this movie, despite Fincher's attempts to make a storytelling gimmick artful, about a month ago I bought the Blu-ray Criterion version -- which I suppose tells you something about my belief in Fincher, and some of the movie's lingering images.

    Haven't made the time to watch it yet.

    I predict I'll like it more the second time, but I'll probably still think that Henson is grating and that the Gumpian screenplay is fatally flawed.

  4. I think you and I basically agree but to varying degrees. It's quite easy to take the line of "visually stimulating but vacant" with the film and even in my renewed enthusiasm I cannot pardon some of the script's repulsive mishaps (and we totally agree on Henson). But there's just something about it that makes me rewatch it and love it. Fincher has that effect on me, and I think it was only in the last month that I was able to stand outside myself and realize, man, I LOVE this guy. Every time I watch a David Fincher movie I think it's great and makes up for the flaws in his other movies, but I've thought this for almost all of them now.