(2008 ) Director: David Fincher (Fight Club, Alien 3) | Writer: Eric Roth (Munich, Ali)
In the past, the knock on David Fincher has been the perceived mechanical, empty nature of his visually provocative films, a style primed for illustrating Big Picture morals via the quirks and emotional triggers that define humanity as a whole, while only touching on studies of the individual in passing. This cold style worked marvelously for Fincher’s 2007 paranoia masterpiece Zodiac, but it leaves a noticeable hole in the center of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a far more individually-focused epic. Luckily, the director’s visual bravado and fine performances from the cast more than smooth over any rough spots, leaving Button a sumptuous, if occasionally misguided, minor American classic.
Brad Pitt plays the titular character, a slow-talking, easygoing man from picturesque New Orleans, and a person with the singular experience of having been born with the body of an 80-something man. Left on the doorstep of a black nursing home operator (a wonderful Taraji P. Henson), Benjamin is soon found to be aging backwards, giving him a unique perspective of life, but a difficult time relating to people. Along the way he meets Daisy (the always-stunning Cate Blanchett), with whom he shares a somewhat-tragic lifelong love affair. Trust me; it’s not nearly as painfully boring as it sounds.
Yes, Button has its flaws, and they aren’t small. Screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) gives Benjamin little to say throughout his extraordinary life, but instead of painting him laid-back, this tight-lipped characterization merely makes the hero seem mentally challenged (when, in fact, he’s just Southern. Zing!). In this way, things happen to Benjamin, and not vice versa. His passivity is understandable, being that he longs for companionship in a life headed the opposite direction from those he cares for, but it also makes for a frustrating lack of decisive action in a character too similarly built to those appearing in other films of precious Americana—like Tim Burton’s mediocre Big Fish and the aforementioned Gump, which worked in part because the eponymous character was actually mentally handicapped.
Perhaps part of the problem is Pitt himself, whose film appearances are more Cultural Events than acting performances these days. In his hands, Benjamin is beautiful and pensive, but behind his perfect face seems to be, well, nothing. A more nuanced actor like Russell Crowe might have solved this issue, but then, Crowe looks like he was beat in the face with a buffalo and then ate it, and anyone less good-looking than Pitt might have ruined the film’s prodigious aesthetics.
Those aesthetics, by the way, are the film’s not-so-secret weapon, and they balance the scales in its favor. Fincher (with fantastic cinematography from Claudio Miranda) wields the camera like a paintbrush, filling the screen with almost suffocating tones of lush color and shade, and the computer-generated look of Pitt’s character as he grows younger is absolutely jaw-dropping, seamlessly integrated into scenes with a talented supporting cast of no-names and character actors. Simply put, Button is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.
Despite the screenplay’s shortcomings, Fincher’s newfound tonal ability to focus on the sad beauty of life, no matter which direction it goes, causes Button to be more emotionally powerful than its thinly-drawn main character gives it the right to be. Though the movie’s heart is ill-made, at least it’s in the right place.
Rating: Three and a Half of Five Stars