Director: David Fincher
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
New Orleans, 2005, then New Orleans/Russia between 1918-2003. Daisy, a dying woman tells her daughter, Caroline, the tale of a blind clockmaker in the city who devised a clock that ran backwards in the memory of those who died in World War One. Caroline then reads to her mother the diary of Benjamin Button. Born in November 1918, Button is born with the appearance and body of an 86 year old. His mother dies in childbirth and his father abandons his son on the porch of a nursing home run by Queeny and Tizzy who take the boy in as their own. Benjamin grows younger as the years pass. In 1930, he meets Daisy for the first time.
A few years later, Benjamin works at sea on a tugboat owned by Captain Mike. In Russia he meets Elizabeth, the wife of a British diplomat and they have a short lived affair in their hotel. During World War Two, the boat is used by the US Navy and destroyed in battle. Only Benjamin survives. He returns to New Orleans in 1945 and meets his dying father who bequeaths his assets to him. Benjamin meets Daisy again in New York. She is in love with a fellow dancer but her career is finished after a car accident. In 1962, they are reunited, at approximately the same age, and start a relationship. They have a child but Benjamin soon leaves, realising he could not be a real father to his daughter. When Daisy reaches old age and Benjamin reaches childhood (but with dementia) she takes care of him before he passes away. Back in the present day, Daisy dies as Caroline finishes reading the diary.
‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is nothing if not a curious film. Just consider its origins for a moment. Somewhat based on a short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald (it’s only the basic premise of a man ageing backwards that’s used), it originally began as a project for Ron Howard. Eric Roth, the screenwriter of ‘Forrest Gump’ wrote this script which you’d think would make it perfect material for a director such as Howard who has made his name with a number of mainstream, middlebrow films. So how did this project finally reach David Fincher? Known as one of the most inventive and cutting edge Hollywood directors who reinvented the serial killer thriller with ‘Seven’ (1995) and who captured the turn of the century crisis of masculinity in ‘Fight Club’ (1999), ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ seems like strange material for him. There are responsibilities that go with working with a $150 million budget; such as producing a film whose appeal goes beyond the lure of its star. ‘…Button’ certainly will reach a wide audience but at what cost to Fincher’s credibility?
It’s tough to know how much to dissect the film when its initial premise of a man ageing backwards is so fantastic. Is there any point in arguing that certain aspects just don’t work? The film is no doubt supposed to be a whimsical piece of fantasy. However, what for instance is the importance of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans at the exact moment Daisy dies? It has no bearing whatsoever on the plot. Perhaps it’s just to remind us which city we’re still in and what the current year is to put into context Daisy’s age. New Orleans was undoubtedly one of the most diverse and culturally vibrant cities of the 1930s but the ethnic melting pot that the film suggests seems a little too over-harmonious with rich elderly white people staying at nursing homes run by a black couple and there’s nary a whisper of racial tension whatsoever. The Russian segment where Benjamin meets and briefly courts Tilda Swinton’s frustrated wife seems like an unnecessary diversion.
The philosophical issues that might accompany someone in Benjamin’s circumstances are also barely touched upon, although again the get out clause here is that it’s not immersed in any kind of reality. Benjamin ages in the reverse direction to everyone else, which has inevitable and grave consequences upon the relationships he builds with people. This would place a heavy set of responsibilities upon Benjamin. This doesn’t really become the focal point of the film, which I suppose is understandable given that a sombre and downbeat attitude isn’t going to sell the film very well. Roth and Fincher refuse to engage any of these issues though and they’ve settled for each answers. At the heart of the film is an incredibly mushy and suffocating love story which overtakes the rest of the film. Their parting occurs in a matter of seconds too. Given the emotionally manipulative nature of the film and the years which Benjamin has waited to be with Daisy, this scene should be tugging at one’s heartstrings and devastating for both. It’s not like Benjamin and Daisy react pragmatically, agreeing it’s for the best. There’s no reaction whatsoever to his departure, which seems cheap given what’s gone on before.
One of the most disappointing aspects of ‘…Button’ is how it never once seems like a Fincher film. He doesn’t leave his signature upon the film and there are none of his trademark techniques. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that he can direct a major mainstream picture with a large budget but the worrying aspect here is how he seems to have pimped his significant talents to this film as a hack for hire. Imagine you knew nothing about this film before watching it. You would never guess the identity of the director. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t look good though. Fincher has always been a visually gifted film maker and aesthetically it’s difficult to fault ‘…Button’. The backwards scenes of World War One (which reflect Benjamin’s entirely existence, his life began at the moment the war ended and the backwards clock was installed) retain an immense power in emphasising the waste of life, and the World War Two scenes at sea show where much of the budget was evidently spent. Fincher too shoots much of the early scenes in a slightly discoloured and fragmented sense to reflect the film stock of the era, and contrasts this sharply with the sterility of the modern day as shown by the brilliant whites of Daisy’s hospital room. Still, you would expect Fincher to deliver more punches but no doubt he felt he had to rein himself in.
He’s not helped by a script that dispenses with conversation and replaces it with simplistic musings on fate, demonstrating that Roth relies largely with the template that enabled him to hit paydirt with ‘Forrest Gump’. There’s humour drawn from Benjamin’s extraordinary circumstances but this goodwill is diminished by the recurring “joke” about the man who was struck by lightning seven times. Of course Fincher has to periodically return to the man telling each incident with a cut to said incident. The budget and Roth’s desire to cram as much detail in as possible makes the film far too long, especially given that the original source was only a short story. Pitt no doubt deserves his acclaim for his role as Benjamin from 85 to 18 or so, especially for the “older” years rather than the more blank and vacant youth he reverts to. However overall ‘…Button’ is something of a flabby mess. Nominated for 14 Oscars, the most amongst this year’s films, it’s unlikely to win any of the main prizes but reveals that 2008 was not the best year for American mainstream film making.