Chronofinchical #7 – The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

David Fincher, 2008. US.

Guest writer – Simon Kinnear – Kinnema.

Fincher’s Oscar-hunting folly?  Or the career Rubicon that sees Hollywood’s angry young man find a way to grow old without necessarily growing up?

At the time of its release, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button appeared to be a startling change of pace for David Fincher, the man almost single-handedly responsible for maintaining a sense of bristling urgency in Hollywood during the past two decades. His best-known films, Se7en and Fight Club, revel in breaking the rules and, when you think about it, even his maligned debut Alien 3 is just about the oddest addition to a major franchise anybody has attempted.

Surely such a maverick wouldn’t sully himself by making such obvious Oscar-bait as Curious Case – a near three-hour epic romance, based on a short story by revered Jazz Age seer F. Scott Fitzgerald and scripted by the guy who wrote the naive, reactionary Forrest Gump.  Well… yes, he did, and there are passages where this sails perilously close to being a disaster of Gump-esque proportions.  Comparisons with Zemeckis’ movie abound, in the chocolate-box imagery, ‘innocent abroad’ heroism, mawkish philosophising and the bizarre need to punish Cate Blanchett’s free-spirited, free-loving Daisy by mangling her leg in a car accident (a twist which, alongside Robin Wright Penn’s tragic death-via-AIDS in Gump, suggests that Roth has some serious issues with strong women).  And it’s probably best not to mention the symbolic hummingbird that crops up at moments of high emotion – the biggest misjudgement of its kind since the red-coated girl in Schindler’s List.

And yes, the result duly won Oscars, the first ever awarded to a Fincher film… but nowhere near the number anticipated.  The favourite in the run-up to the ceremony, it mustered only three technical gongs on the night (Best Art Direction, Best Make Up and Best Visual Effects), losing in most major categories to the euphoric juggernaut ofSlumdog Millionaire.  Had Fincher botched it?  Or had he, in fact, made a film so odd and so challenging it was never going to compete with the more obvious charms of Danny Boyle’s crowdpleaser?

Make no mistake, Curious Case is aptly named, its upside-down, magical realist premise (Benjamin ages in reverse, from ossified, arthritic baby to senile, cantankerous child) holding up a Lewis Caroll-esque looking-glass to the whole awards-magnet genre.  While it apparently plays along with established tropes, Fincher can’t help but subvert them, albeit in a far subtler way than the hyperactive sabre-rattler of his Fight Club days.  Beneath the twee sentimentality of Roth’s set-up, Fincher remains the angry man of Hollywood.  Fury is the quality that defines his films – Fight Club is a howl of rage at fin de siècle America – but here it’s a withdrawn, stoic anger, a frustration at the passage of time itself and an agonised despair at the inevitability of decrepitude.

Fincher’s characters tend to go against the grain.  In Se7en, John Doe is a Biblical prophet of doom against the iniquities of sin.  Fight Club’s narrator – and his best bud Tyler Durden – strike a blow for freedom for emasculated, commodified fellas everywhere.  And in Zodiac, Robert Graysmith pushes for the truth well beyond the limits of mental endurance.  Psychological cages traps these characters in a state of solitary confinement, but Benjamin – confined instead by physicality – may be the most isolated of all.

Crucially, Fincher is no longer the proverbial “angry young man.”  It’s important to realise that the director was in his mid-40s when he made this, the same age that Benjamin and Daisy are when they “meet in the middle” … and the same age, not coincidentally, that their daughter is when she learns the truth of her parentage.  For early 21st century life expectancy, 40-something is our crossing point from youth to old age, and there’s no amount of digital trickery that’s going to change that.

Not that Fincher isn’t intent on trying.  The technical innovator in Fincher seizes on the demands of the screenplay to convincingly portray a life from, as it were, grave to cradle.  The film is a mind-boggling marvel in the low-key but effective use of FX (another Gump echo, of course, but still striking) to morph Brad Pitt’s features onto other actors to maintain the character’s continuity: a uniform Button, if you like.  But the God-like remaking of man’s image has a wider significance, and one that could well explain Fincher’s interest in the material.  The first act of Fincher’s career is over (and remember, it was Fitzgerald himself who said “there are no second acts in American life”).  The very process of Fincher taking on a relatively mainstream, end-of-year weepie becomes a mad, pre-emptive way of allaying artistic decline.  Like the certain victim who decides to hell with it and attacks the predator in a foolhardy act of bravado, Fincher chooses the “old-timer’s” project before it chooses him.

That willingness – that need – to take chances in order to have a fulfilling life is, of course, one of the messages of the film.  Button’s life is a mosaic of memories, an idea crystallised in the opening image of the Paramount mountain composed from a cascade of buttons.  The deliberate pacing allows Fincher to punctuate Benjamin’s story with bold, larger-than-life cameos from the likes of Jared Harris (outrageously entertaining as an Irish sea dog) and Tilda Swinton (typically poised between severity and sexiness as the woman who teaches Button how to love).  In tragic contrast, Benjamin’s unique disability forces him to hide in shadows, a spell-bound watcher of others’ exciting achievements.  If it was Pitt’s iconic presence that galvanised Fight Club, Fincher brings out a new quality here in his most trusted collaborator, a beguiling stillness and sadness that cuts through the CGI to achieve real heart.

But the film is also about Fincher’s own memories, something that becomes clear during its final act.  Hitherto a period piece, with a lulling sepia hue and ornate art direction, the Beatles’ Twist and Shout signals the shift into a tangible modernity, something we can recognise and touch.  As in Zodiac, the chronology clicks with the director’s own childhood, and this becomes personal.  Fincher’s father died during pre-production, and David himself is a father, giving an edge to the later scenes of parentage – notably the bizarrely beautiful climax where an elderly Daisy nurses the infant Benjamin to his deathbed.  A never-better Jason Flemyng, a break-out Taraji P. Henson and a typically multi-faceted Blanchett (arguably, the true emotional core of the movie) act as an unlikely trio of parents to a most unlikely child, but are united by one quality.  Whatever their flaws or misdeeds, they all come good to ensure that, rare amongst Fincher heroes, Benjamin isn’t alone after all.  Now, that is a change of pace.

Simon Kinnear is the editor of  the Kinnemaniac movie blog and is a contributor to Total Film and DVD Review.


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