Many people seem to love to hate David Fincher’s divisive, Oscar-baiting epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I’m definitely not in that group. This is a ravishing movie, filled with more emotion and heart than any previous Fincher film and any Fincher film to come after. Yes, the heart that beats all throughout this somber and exquisitely rendered romantic fable may be a tad cold, but that’s the Finch for you — if he’s going to offer ANY sort of sentiment he’s going to do it on his terms and in his special way. This is a perverse movie in retrospect, a film with a bleeding-heart romance at its core, but one that keeps its lovebirds separated for most of the narrative, due in no small part to the surreal quality that the film’s twist so mind-bogglingly explores. This is sumptuous, old-fashioned filmmaking studded with new-fashioned techniques and technology, and of course Fincher created a digitally altered character that’s more introverted and reserved than flashy and garish. This is a film filled with magical realism, allusions to other great literary works, romantic fantasy, and all of it is pulled together with flawless, groundbreaking visual effects that heighten the story instead of overpowering, great performances from a fully loaded cast, breathtaking cinematography from Claudio Miranda that’s all silky shadows with a stunning quality of light that repeatedly casts a cinematic spell over the viewer, and lush production design by Donald Graham Burt that feels wonderfully old and new at the same time. Every creative element was in perfect harmony with the melancholic notes of Alexandre Desplat’s sweeping original score. At times, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like one of the most expensive art films ever made.
Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film is the quirky and odd story of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a human being who is born as an old man, and who then ages in reverse, thus complicating every facet of his life. Pitt’s acting talent has long been underrated if not outright ignored, and in this film, he gave a quietly expressive performance, similar to his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He’s playing an observant character, not a man of fast action, and because of this, there’s this potential sense of aimlessness and purposelessness that some people had with his character. Not me. I find these roles to be perfect vessels for actors to allow themselves to be ensconced in an environment, letting everything wash over, allowing them time to contemplate the grand ideas of life, something that happens on more than one occasion to Benjamin during the course of the film. Pitt is matched every step of the way by the luminous Cate Blanchett, playing his eternal love interest, and the two of them shared spellbinding on-screen chemistry that you can truly feel in every scene. Watching the two of them find each other and then drift apart then back together again throughout the sprawling narrative is the stuff of genuine heartache, and Fincher, ever the smiling sadist, is happy to break their hearts, and ours, more than once.
The episodic but perfectly balanced screenplay from big-gun scribe Eric Roth (which he wrote from a story he concocted with screenwriter Robin Swicord) does share some of the spirit and structure of Forrest Gump, another film that Roth adapted for the screen and which features an inwardly main character who goes through a variety of life experiences set against the backdrop of the expanding country all around him. Roth always brings intelligence to his work – this is the man responsible for helping craft the scripts to The Insider, The Good Shepherd, Munich, and Ali (to name just a few) – and while Fincher certainly gets his customary mileage out of the visual aspects to this tremendous story, Roth’s poetic dialogue and heartbreaking notions about life never get lost on the audience or on Fincher as a director. Working with his most eloquent of scripts, Fincher was able to craft a film that felt real and right and true, even with a story device that is high-concept yet cerebral.
This is a piece of work where death hangs over the proceedings at all times, very much in an ominous fashion, and the way that Fincher combined these dark themes with an ultimately uplifting message is a stroke of pure directorial finesse. Some of the best scenes of this movie involve the relationship between Pitt and Tilda Swinton in that lovingly burnished hotel which reveals multiple layers of romantic longing that boils the blood in your veins. When this film was released, many people scoffed at it, calling it Fincher’s desperate bid for Academy recognition, and yes, it landed a slew of nominations, but if memory serves me, it went home empty handed in all categories. The film performed well enough at the box office ($250 million worldwide or something close to that) but I’ve always felt that this movie got a big shrug from many Fincher loyalists. I’d take this movie ANY DAY over something like Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For as fine as those two genre thrillers ended up being, while watching, you sense an artist on autopilot, directing splashy material that’s beneath his level of smarts and filmmaking savvy. With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fincher stepped outside of his comfort zone more than he ever has, and made a sweeping and romantic film on his terms.