Saturday, January 3, 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) A Film by David Fincher
F. Scott Fitzergald's whimsical fable - which is the basis of David Fincher's latest film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - is not something I have read, but simply given the fact that it is a short story, I assume it deals less with the inexorable flow of time and mortality than it does with comic fantasy. While Fincher was likely not entirely loyal to the prose, his expansion of it into a fantastical two and a half hour rumination is impressive. Fitzgerald's story, adapted by screenwriter Eric Roth, is of a man who is born an elder and ages backwards. The premise is absurd and seemingly unfit for feature-length cinema, but fortunately Fincher seems to have been aware of this fact, and therefore has created a film that is often very casual in tone (in fact, it even involves a hilarious running joke) rather than emotionally overblown.
Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a character whose psychological makeup is about as simple as can be; he continually accepts life's misfortunes with complacence, a trait that has already elicited several comparisons to Forrest Gump (not surprising given that Roth wrote that film too). As a squealing, horrendously wrinkled infant, Benjamin is left on the front steps of an African American home where he is taken in by the woman whom he eventually believes to be his true mother. Through digital processes, Pitt's artificially aged face is tacked on to a short, frail old body, a transformation that curiously balances an almost Pixar-like artifice with a confounding credibility; surely this manifestation of a toddler with geriatric features is exciting to behold.
Benjamin spots a young love in Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and the relationship evolves into the main dramatic thrust of the film. Naturally Benjamin and Daisy head their separate ways for a time, but there is a simmering tension that is created by their inconsistent romance, especially due to the fact that it is chronologically fleeting. The two share several ups and downs in the film, but when they finally come together at similar ages, it undeniably picks up steam. A scene several years after Benjamin leaves Daisy following the birth of their daughter (he feels incompetent as a father, wanting to be her parental figure rather than her "playmate") involving Benjamin seeing Daisy with her new husband for the first time accounts for an extremely emotionally awkward moment.
The ambitious concept of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button inevitably results in a fair share of shortcomings. The whole story is told in a manner that is very familiar in sweeping epics; a woman accompanying another on her death bed reads her diary, the sentences of which are completed in voice-over by Benjamin. Towards the middle of the film, we realize the identities of these two characters and how important the technique is to the story, but nonetheless it feels like a formality that Fincher found himself required to intercut into the fantasy. Whenever the scene wallops back into the harsh hospital room color scheme (blue and grey mainly), it detracts from the sepia-toned tale we are just beginning to engage with. Also, Fincher, who deals with an entire lifetime in telling his story, drifts in and out of melodrama at times; he shows us several of Button's personal adventures (a stint in the Navy) but fails to provide the ramifications they have on him. There is one action sequence at sea that has little noticeable effect on Benjamin in the long run, so it felt too much like story fluff. Thirdly, Fincher resorts to the tired use of a hummingbird as a metaphor for hope, a device that certainly was distracting and unnecessary.
Despite these seemingly integral missteps however, the film remains compelling and never drags. Pitt is showing, as he ages (forward of course, unlike in the film), his seriousness as a performer; his character is no scene-stealer, but there is certainly a subtlety that can be admired. Blanchett also does a fine job, and there's no doubt that the pairing is the greatest dramatic aspect in the film. The nearly flawless cinematography is a welcome ingredient in a film that is a monolithic attempt at something powerful, which it may not entirely achieve, but is nonetheless fascinating to experience.