David Fincher would seem, in terms of temperament, an unlikely directorial choice for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an era-spanning epic whose sweeping, poignant romance doesn’t seem a natural fit for a digital-era auteur whose films are generally typified by cool, sleek, exacting meticulousness. And yet that measured, distant disposition is, in fact, what prevents his latest from sliding into the mawkishness for which it so often seems destined. As written by Eric Roth, the saga (adapted—and, more fundamentally, expanded—from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) is in many ways a kindred spirit to the screenwriter’s Forrest Gump, in that its center is an especially unique individual whose life, and unflagging amour for a beauty he can only temporarily be with, plays out against the backdrop of 20th-century America. However, whereas Roth’s prior, Robert Zemeckis-helmed Oscar darling was as mushy as a box of chocolates melted by the midday sun, Fincher’s is a far more reserved portrait of everlasting love, a work whose aspirations for grandeur are, more often than not, mitigated by a controlled aesthetic and emotional rigor that situates the film in a comfortable—if nonetheless sometimes problematic—middle ground between the sentimental and the standoffish.
In 1918, on the day WWI comes to a close and a blind clockmaker (Elias Koteas), in tribute to those lost to the conflict (including his son), debuts a train station timepiece that runs backward, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born in New Orleans with all the physical infirmities of old age. Horrified by his shriveled-up infant, which has killed his wife during childbirth, Benjamin’s father (Jason Flemyng) leaves the baby on the doorstep of a nursing home, where he’s adopted by an African-American woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) whose stereotypically sassy Southern mouth and accompanying mannerisms cast her as a hoary descendent of Scarlet’s Mammy. Benjamin is a person destined to age backward, a curious condition that gently, if often strikingly, informs the tale’s central preoccupations with time, mortality, and the transience of joy, all topics which Benjamin becomes intimately familiar with while residing in a place where inhabitants regularly shuffle off this mortal coil. One day, he meets young redhead Daisy (Elle Fanning first, Cate Blanchett later), the granddaughter of a resident, and sparks slowly begin to fly, their love destined to span decades, immense distances, and ultimately, life itself, as evidenced by Daisy’s still-ardent reactions as she lies dying in a hospital bed, Hurricane Katrina approaching, listening to her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin’s diary in the story’s lumbering modern-day framing device.
As his physical circumstances inevitably isolate him from his generation—too brittle to be young, then too youthful to be old—Benjamin throws into sharp relief the ephemerality of existence and the consequent necessity of seizing opportunities when possible. Benjamin’s plight is that he’s inherently out of sync with the world, his physical circumstances highlighting the fragility of youth and death as well as the universal desire to fit in, and his relationship with Daisy—specifically, when their ages briefly align during the 1960s—touchingly emphasizes the fleeting nature of true happiness. Roth’s script makes sure his carpe diem themes aren’t missed, as his desire to cement his saga as larger-than-life leads to a trying habit of forcing characters to spout underlined profundities, whether it be Daisy musing “I was thinking about how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is,” or Queenie’s narrative-guiding truism “You never know what’s comin’ for ya.” This latter sentiment is at once true and not, and it’s that dichotomy—that death is everyone’s final destination, and yet our routes to it are forever variable—that forms Benjamin Button’s affecting narrative push-pull, even when the script seems determined to telegraph its plot’s course through overblown expository declarations.
If such undercurrents are often dragged into the unforgiving light of day by Roth’s greeting-card dialogue, they nevertheless retain their emotional vitality thanks to an aesthetic keenly attuned to the passage of time. Utilizing fluid, seamless special effects to create Benjamin’s aging-in-reverse appearance (a practical hurdle right up the bleeding-edge director’s technical alley), Fincher coats the early proceedings in a cozy, gauzy Jean-Pierre Jeunot-ish haze of fairy-tale smoke while fashioning his post-’50s action with brisk, intimate hues. It’s his compositional framing, though, that’s most arresting, his alternation between expressive close-ups and shots that arrange figures in isolating, off-kilter lines—a gorgeous one of Benjamin and Daisy reunited years after their affair’s end, of a dementia-addled toddler on a building’s roof (a commingling of volatile youth/infirmity), of an aged Daisy bending down to kiss toddler Benjamin—silently articulating time’s capacity to both separate and unite. Lingering on certain blissful episodes and hastening through other decades, his narrative’s pace further conveys the preciousness of those rare moments of pure, perfect harmony. When Benjamin holds Daisy tightly in front of a dance studio mirror, Benjamin Button captures the urgent, futile desire to freeze time (and, by extension, to forever remain within that memorized instant), a sense of simultaneous contentment, fear, and sadness that Fincher’s tender, spatially exquisite visuals habitually evoke.
Benjamin’s journey takes him from New Orleans to a WWII-ensnared tugboat run by the heavily tattooed and thoroughly cartoonish Captain Mike (Jared Harris), then into a maiden affair with married Elizabeth Abbott (a superbly nuanced Tilda Swinton), to Daisy (who becomes a celebrated ballerina and, after a debilitating accident, a teacher and Benjamin’s wife), and finally on to locales far and remote. What with its bevy of broadly colorful (sometimes literally as well as figuratively) peripheral characters, occasional references to culturally significant touchstones (Apollo 11, the Beatles, Wild One-era Brando via a shot of an impossibly handsome Benjamin astride a motorcycle), an amusingly recurring gag involving lightning strikes, and an egregiously symbolic hummingbird, Benjamin Button unavoidably invites comparisons to Gump. The similarity most frustrating, however, is the film’s conception of Benjamin as a loner destined to traverse through American life both alone and, more importantly, passively, since by making its protagonist a blank-slate observer rather than an active participant, it drains him of the very humanity that might fully ignite his and Daisy’s relationship. Instead, theirs is a conceptual, idealized love, and though Fincher’s direction regularly proves stirring, the impression remains—also spurred by the passionless bemusement with which Benjamin carries himself—that his somewhat abstract approach results in missed opportunities for exceptional, aching feeling.
Still, Benjamin’s very blankness gives the film—and its central romance—a beguiling measure of dreamy, fabulistic wonder, one that entrances even as Roth’s script regularly missteps, whether it be by referencing Katrina (a tacky symbol of the unpredictable, unchangeable future) or squandering any of the framing story’s potential (with a mid-plot paternity revelation leading to exactly jack squat). Certainly, Pitt’s sentimentally moderated performance and Blanchett’s suitably chilly turn, when coupled with Fincher’s suspiciousness of bald-faced treacle, makes many of these cheesy history-through-the-eyes-of-a-weirdo errors in judgment go down easier. The film’s more cloying inclinations never overwhelm because the director, and his performers, treat their tale with just enough detachment to give it a beautiful, enchanting refracted-through-gossamer (or -time) quality. It’s a subtle balancing act, and one far less obviously dexterous than the vast data-streamlining of Zodiac. Yet his work here is, in a way, no less impressive, exhibiting both a technical deftness and heartrending urgency that’s ultimately overpowering, Fincher (like his spiritual stand-in, the intro’s clockmaker) so in command of his material and his medium that—even in a work as simultaneously rapturous and maddening as Benjamin Button—he seems capable, at any given moment, of producing magic.