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Modern Maturity: David Fincher’s
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Directed by David Fincher

Reviewed by Eric Hynes

Midway through the long, trying yarn that is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there are fifteen minutes of exquisite cinematic pleasure. The titular character descends a hotel staircase in the middle of the night and finds a tall, elegantly plain woman smoking cigarettes in the lobby. They decide to have tea. They sit in the kitchen, talking nervously and staring each other down. After a long, sleepless night, they retire to separate beds. The next night, unplanned, they do it again. Eventually, the robed Ben Button descends and finds the woman decked out in a ball gown, and she guides him to a candlelight dinner. Again they part. Then next night Button wears a suit to match her attire, they get drunk on champagne and stumble out onto the snowy streets before returning to the hotel, where they rent a new room and begin their affair.

One of the most beautifully crafted and subtly emotive sequences of 2008, with perfectly framed and paced shots, and a sublime sketch of a performance by Tilda Swinton, it almost justifies and redeems the surrounding film. When cinephiles swoon over David Fincher’s seventh feature — a big Hollywood follow-up to his justly celebrated Zodiac — they’re thinking of this sequence. There are worse films than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and those 15 masterful minutes may well justify the price of admission. But there’s a lot of movie before and after Swinton’s cameo, and though the sequence threatens to justify and provide meaning to the whole enterprise, it ultimately can’t.

The “Case” in question, if you haven’t already heard from the raft of pre-publicity, entails a baby born as a diseased old man. After his mother dies in childbirth, the shriveled baby gets deposited on the steps of an old age home, where he’s adopted by a young caretaker and named Benjamin. Although everyone assumes he’ll die shortly, he gradually grows healthier — and younger — as he gets older. Soon he’s a short, bespectacled, wheelchair-bound prune, then he’s a taller, big-headed prune with crutches, then he’s a creaky walker who’s a dead-ringer for present-day, rough-hided Robert Redford. During this time, Benjamin is voiced, via distortion, by Brad Pitt, but brought to life by reality approximating CGI and, more critically, by co-stars gamely playing against dead air. Outside of some slippery eye-line interaction, the puppet-show is impressive and almost seamless — if it’s only seams you’re looking for. I’m sure the technology at play here is unprecedented, a major step forward in CGI naturalism for those predisposed to care for such things, and I’m sure it will win Academy Awards to confirm this feat. But for the film’s first hour, when Ben is the toddling prune instead of the latexed Brad Pitt, gawking at this how-did-they-do-that special effect is rarely distracted by story. And if a tale this tall can’t persuade us to care, if a character this uncharacteristic can’t come alive except through approximations of human expression — “Oh, look, he can blink!” — then we’re in for a very long haul.

The character of Button arises from the rather banal thematic duality of normalcy and abnormality. Or maybe it’s just the handling that makes it banal, choosing to tamp down the dramatic possibilities of that conceit. Since we know that Ben is abnormal, the film often emphasizes his normal, happy life, eschewing conflict for the sake of grace. Though it does hold metaphoric interest, situating Ben in an old age home spares him the potential unpleasantness of relating to siblings, peers, or attending school. When his adoptive mother eventually has a child of her own, the child, and Ben’s jealousy of her, barely registers. He’s even spared the suspicions of the actually aged. When his housemates are informed of his ailing baby body, an old man cheerily says, “Join the club!” And so Ben’s childhood is just about perfect, full of odd, wise characters, a loving adopted mother, and very few questions about how he could possibly be getting younger. I suppose this lack of conflict flies in the face of expectation, and may even qualify as a bold stroke, but it leaves the narrative entirely reliant on the hackneyed colorfulness of its supporting characters. Despite his spectacular condition, Ben is just a cipher. He’s what everyone he meets, including us, make of him.

Set in New Orleans and framed by a belabored hospital bed duet between Button’s dying sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett) and her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond, who’s asked to hold back bewildered tears for nearly three thankless hours), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button takes the deliberate form of a Southern gothic yarn. Caroline reads to Daisy from Benjamin’s tattered diary, with Pitt’s voice always replacing Ormond’s, and when the diary concludes Daisy rasps through the rest of the story. Though loosely based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, Eric Roth’s screenplay bears the closest resemblance to his own Oscar-winning script for Forrest Gump. Another charming, oddly gifted cipher with a hammy homey accent, Roth’s hero leaves the wispy weeping willows of his youth armed with a mother’s love and naïve enough to not be defeated by life’s travails. Those he meets — a cigar-chomping, tattooed Irish sailor, a pragmatic pygmy, even his own guilt-wracked father — are attracted to Ben’s disarming contradiction: a weathered appearance coupled with wide-eyed inexperience. As an ambassador’s wife marooned in Siberian Russia (how or why she, not to mention the tugboat-bound Ben, wound up here the film doesn’t bother to make clear), Swinton makes the most of Benjamin’s strange allure. She needs someone, he’s willing, and both are happy to leave questions unasked. Ben can be both enraptured and whatever, whoever she needs. Time seems to stand still when they’re together, and that’s no small achievement for Fincher. But the narrative resumes, and the yarn unspools with few other fascinating kinks. As with Gump — and this year’s other dumb picaresque, Slumdog Millionaire — the main thread is our protagonist’s childish infatuation with his childhood playmate.

Though central, Ben and Daisy’s love affair follows an exhaustingly winding course, satisfaction withheld as a screenwriter’s easy path to sentiment. They depart and reunite for seven cycles in all. He sails the seas, fights in the war, inherits a fortune, rides a motorcycle. She dances for Balanchine, lives the free-loving life of a hipster in New York and Paris, then eventually returns to New Orleans. Finally matched in age and beauty, they settle in together in a mod condo and make up for lost time, the TV and radio transporting us to the “Twist and Shout” early Sixties. Blanchett is worth waiting for; her face, first thin and clear, accumulates lines of feeling and fear, the only real gauge of Benjamin’s affect on others. But Pitt embodies Button’s bland blankness all too well. Too ready to let make-up or costume signify his place in the world, Pitt’s performance is wooden and remote, only slightly more lively than his rubbery, computer-drawn incarnation. And his garbled, uneven N’awlans accent serves as a distracting bridge between them.

Sensing that his gathering youthfulness will ruin Daisy, Ben abandons her and their young child, ostensibly a tough, self-sacrificing choice (Daisy even thanks him later), but starving the film of yet more opportunities for conflict. Will Daisy still love and accept him, will their child accept dad’s reverse aging, how will Ben behave as he looks younger but feels, and thinks, much older? We’ll never know, because he zooms off on his motorcycle instead, travelling the world a fashionable, drop-dead gorgeous loner. In his final return, he’s no longer Pitt, leaving Blanchett to literally carry the bag, creepily staring into the eyes of a senile child.

Perhaps it’s just wishful, or overly watchful auteurism talking, but it does seem that Fincher tries to muffle Roth’s “Precious Moments” of crass mediocrity, shooting slightly askance or moving quickly past moments that Zemeckis or Frank Darabont would strike like a golden gong. But still, there’s a Gump-like hummingbird that greets Ben at war on the Pacific Ocean, and then again outside of Daisy’s hospital window — a clumsy, desperate grab for heartstrings matched only by repeat visits to an amber sunset. If Roth weren’t so ready to give Benjamin a charmed life, perhaps these sentimental touches would have power. Or if the story weren’t so willfully cluttered, approaching even Tim Burton’s Big Fish for Southern gothic bric-a-brac, perhaps Fincher could have stopped time a few times more, making The Curious Case of Benjamin Button more worthy of yours.




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