Three of the seven films in David Fincher’s directorial career have been among the best of the last 15 years. Se7en is a modern cult classic, its challenging themes continually discussed and debated in the film community. Fight Club is massively misinterpreted-and even used as an excuse for violence-by today’s youth, but reflects the attitudes of Generation X better than any film in memory. Last year’s Zodiac was consistently lapsed in with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men as one of 2007’s breakthrough works-this in what’s universally considered a great year for cinema.
Thus it’s disappointing that Fincher’s new film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, contains such a miserably conventional story. Many will compare it to Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump-unsurprising, since both scripts were penned by Eric Roth (Button adapted from a comic and poignant short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald). Like Forrest Gump, Button is usually an enjoyable ride, but it misses the literary significance that it aims for almost entirely.
Hearing the story’s gimmick, one might raise his eyebrows at the phrase “conventional story.” Brad Pitt plays the title character, who is born an 80-year-old man and ages backward-when he inevitably dies, he will appear to be an infant child.
It’s hard to weave a human story out of a concept like that, and Button certainly fails. The main reason for this is that Benjamin is not a flawed character or even one that seems to have much agency. For the entire duration of the film, the conflict is kept on the outside; we rarely see Benjamin confronting his own nature in a meaningful way. Most of his problems are caused by the world, not his own choices. This being the case, the movie’s morals, much like Gump, are left to trinkets of dialogue intended to be passed down through the ages (e.g., “Life is a like a box of chocolates”).
Even the bonus love story-which truly feels to be at the heart of the film-is Notebook-y in its superficiality. When he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett) early in his life, Benjamin is struck by her blue eyes (sound familiar?), and though their friendship is thin and scattered, somehow he manages to fall in love despite being separated from her for years at a time. Yet while this is a familiar subplot, the film’s last moments, when Daisy must make provocative choices regarding Benjamin’s imminent infancy, become its best in the humanity that they display.
As is expected from Fincher, the film makes some compelling stylistic choices. The opening shot is brilliant, and the use of stock footage and atmosphere-particularly during a scene where Benjamin battles in WWII-is always striking. Pitt may be the sexiest man alive, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a fine actor, and Blanchett-well, you know she’s wonderful. Roth might be a flawed storyteller, but many exchanges here-such as when Daisy finally seduces Benjamin-do deserve to be passed down through the ages.
In a recent interview, Fincher complained, “It’s funny, but when we first showed this movie to people, they thought we were showing how these people were fated to be in love. That was the antithesis of what we were trying to do. I was trying to illustrate that youth is not wasted on the young.” Examining the film, it’s close to impossible to consider how this theme could have been derived. Fincher can rest assured-the fault is Roth’s-but it’s a fault nonetheless.