"Warmhearted” is not a word you would typically use to describe the films of director David Fincher; “cold,” “calculating” and “meticulous” are more along the lines of what you expect from the director of Zodiac, Fight Club and Panic Room, but his latest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, somehow manages to embrace all of those qualities. It’s full of big Hollywood grandeur, with a movie-star lead performance from Brad Pitt, and it puts every cent of its large budget on the screen. Yet it’s also as controlled and painstakingly crafted as any of Fincher’s past efforts, and its sweeping romance is tempered at all times by a fixation on themes of death and regret.
Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (the only person credited for a script that has passed through numerous hands over the last decade) take only the title and very basic premise from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about Benjamin Button, who is born as an old man and over the course of his life becomes younger and younger, ending as a baby. The movie’s story begins in 1918, at the close of World War I, when Benjamin is born to a New Orleans businessman and his wife, who dies in childbirth. Seeing the wrinkled visage of his newborn son, Benjamin’s father abandons the baby on the steps of a nursing home, where a kind employee named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) takes him in and raises him as her own, despite his unnatural physiology.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson.
- Directed by David Fincher
- Rated PG-13.
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Benjamin’s early days represent a remarkable feat of special effects, with Pitt’s face, aged via makeup and CGI, grafted on to the bodies of smaller actors. The effects technology is so advanced, though, that after the initial shock this phenomenon is almost never distracting; it merely represents as perfectly as possible Benjamin’s condition, that of a young boy trapped in the infirm body of an old man. Benjamin grows up around people in the twilight of their lives, and thus is constantly surrounded by death. He learns early on the cost of facing one’s own mortality, a theme that recurs throughout his life, as he gets younger and younger while everyone around him gets older.
Fincher follows Benjamin all the way from 1918 to his death many decades later; through a career as a seaman, an unconventional stint in World War II, a late-life turn as a soul-searching nomad and, most importantly, a period when he and childhood sweetheart Daisy (Cate Blanchett) “meet in the middle,” living an idyllic romantic life when they are both around their late 30s/early 40s. The movie is framed by a superfluous sequence detailing Daisy’s last moments on her hospital deathbed during Hurricane Katrina, as her daughter (Julia Ormond) reads aloud from Benjamin’s journals. This leads to an inevitable (and obvious) revelation about the daughter, one overdetermined plot element that could easily have been excised.
Everything else about Benjamin’s life, though, is depicted with the same rich attention to detail that Fincher has always exhibited, and embodied strongly by Pitt, who deftly handles the challenge of playing a mature man with a young man’s gait, and vice versa. Blanchett lays it on a little thick in the deathbed scenes but is otherwise luminous as the flighty yet soulful Daisy. The movie’s last hour is both a depressing march toward death and a joyous affirmation of life; Fincher never flinches away from Benjamin’s repeated confrontations with life’s inevitable decline and the ways that people are almost always unprepared to face it.
In this way, Curious Case is as pessimistic as any of Fincher’s films; none of us, no matter how fully we live, can escape having to face death, even those who age backward. It’s a testament to Fincher’s craftsmanship that even such a bleak message can evoke feelings of hope and wonder.