Grace, at any age? Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button is the serene center of this highly crafted David Fincher film. (Photo by Merrick Morton, courtesy/copyright Paramount Pictures Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Bursting with 'Button'

Dennis Harvey December 23, 2008

David Fincher is an odd duck, an extreme perfectionist who’s earned Hollywood’s respect but not its love. They’d be more forgiving if more of his exhaustively crafted films actually made money. But Grand Guignol noir Se7en and unusually conventional thriller Panic Room are exceptions; cool but ingenious The Game and underwhelming Alien3 just did okay. Fight Club and Zodiac were widely acclaimed, yet stubbornly failed to grab the wide audience that might justify their considerable expense.

It’s rare for an auteur to be so serially, extravagantly funded by the mainstream industry—Welles and Von Stroheim being famous pilloried examples—when they’ve already fallen flat with costly prior risks. But Fincher walks that plank again with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, opening on Christmas. This technically dazzling, decades-spanning fable is a more tenderhearted reflection on humanity than Fincher has allowed himself before. Whether it leaves you enchanted or indifferent may prove a matter of taste. But it’s a fascinating and accomplished gamble that again asserts Fincher as a major talent whose limits are still unknown.

Derived (very loosely) from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald—not a name one might normally associate with whimsy and wonder—the film is, as you may have heard, about a man who ages backwards. As in, from very wrinkly baby with lots of old-age infirmities to a normal-looking, goo-goo-da-da-ing infant who just happens to have lived 80 years or so already. Precisely why this came to be, we never know; our hero is in many respects a very ordinary person whose life is made extraordinary by this inexplicable quirk of fate.

His mother dying in childbirth, Benjamin (played by Brad Pitt after a few early It’s Alive-style mutant baby moments) is dumped by his horrified, grief-stricken button tycoon father (Jason Flemyng) on a tenement doorstep near the 20th century’s dawn. He’s taken in by Queenie (a rather wonderful Taraji P. Henson), a young African American woman who works and lives at a rest home for the elderly. Her pitiful new charge certainly isn’t expected to live long. Yet he survives, growing into a stunted senior quite at home amongst fellow residents here. Then, strangely, he grows taller, straighter, stronger…younger.

Once he’s hale enough to commence a normal adult life—albeit still initially looking like someone on the verge of retirement—he sails the seas with Captain Mike (Jared Harris), faces off a Nazi U-boat, has an affair with a diplomat’s wife (Tilda Swinton), and other adventures. But he finally returns home to reunite with a now-aged Queenie and now-grown Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the latter a late resident’s granddaughter turned ballet dancer, and, since childhood, the love of his life.

Framed by Daisy on her deathbed revealing Benjamin’s story to the daughter (Julia Ormond) who never knew him, Curious Case is a sort of decades-spanning epic love story not quite like any other—and certainly not like the concurrent Australia, which is as overblown and cliche-ridden as Fincher’s film is deft and surprising. It’s very romantic, yet constantly colored by mortality and melancholy, as well as the slightly chill distance Fincher has exercised to varying degrees in all his movies. You weren’t expecting the maker of Se7en to make a sentimental gushfest, eh?

Nonetheless, it is a shock how sweet much of the movie is, reflecting the essential guilelessness of our titular character. In that and other respects—not least their being written by the same scenarist, Eric Roth—an easy comparison point would be Forrest Gump. But while that movie was manipulative and somewhat reactionary (in the way Robin Wright’s character was punished for actually living the 1960s, while Forrest’s sheeplike conformity was applauded), this one honors, even demands somewhat, a viewer’s intelligence.

Much attention will no doubt be focused on the extraordinary makeup and digital effects that let Benjamin age backwards as everyone around him heads in the other direction. But there is a performance under there, and while I can understand why Pitt isn’t getting any award love yet—it’s a very passive character played without any showiness whatsoever—his is still the movie’s serene center. Compare this to his last two wildly disparate performances, the trigger-taut Jesse James and Burn After Reading’s hilarious gym bunny, and it’s clear Brad Pitt is turning into an actor to be reckoned with. Really, who’d have thought?