Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is a boy born with the biology of a pensioner As he grows up, he grows younger, and falls in love with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). Can their romance survive his curious condition?
About three-quarters of the way through The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, we are presented with perhaps the unlikeliest scene of 2009, a real cinematic curio: as Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) move into an apartment together, we get the awesome spectacle of A David Fincher Rom-Com Montage, as the lovers do the decorating, set up home and goof around. It’s exactly the kind of thing that is de rigueur for films starring Kate Hudson, but seems unimaginable from the director of Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac. But, in turning his attention to the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that previously passed through Steven Spielberg and Spike Jonze (isn’t Fincher the middle ground between these two?), David Fincher, after years of assaulting our senses, has found a palette of completely different tones without jettisoning any of his filmmaking flair or acuity.
A lot of talk surrounding Button will concern its similarity to Forrest Gump. This is down to its almost blank-slate hero, technical razzle-dazzle, use of a single character to document swathes of American history and the fact that Eric Roth penned both screenplays. But in the off-screen and on-screen story, the film Benjamin Button perhaps most resembles is Titanic. Both represent culty genre directors stepping out of their comfort zones — for Cameron, science-fiction with a double-helping of time travel, for Fincher, thriller with a double-helping of serial-killing — into more awards-friendly territory. Both are time-shifting, big-scale love stories narrated by an old dear that are marinated by the knowledge of impending death. And both are exquisitely tailored pieces of filmmaking that put dazzling visual effects in the service of deeply human stories.
But where Button veers sharply from Titanic is in its emotional temperature. Whereas Cameron uses every trick in the book to put the audience through the wringer, Fincher’s story of a man who grows young never goes for easy, Hans Zimmer-inspired surging sentiment. Every one of Fincher’s instincts fights against it. A resident in the OAP home that Benjamin grows up in has been hit seven times by lightning and Fincher has malicious fun in flashing back to every one. In one of the film’s wittiest moments, Blanchett’s Daisy tells a youthful-looking Button, “You’re perfect”, and the jangling irony that this is being said to Brad Pitt is not lost on anyone. This is typical of Fincher’s war on the mawkish.
This is also a love story that has no truck with notions such as fate and destiny, and as if to underline the point Fincher mounts an impeccable, intricately constructed What If? montage, an ode to chaos theory that has important ramifications for a major character and the story as a whole. In Button’s grown-up universe, people do not waft around like feathers: they make their own decisions, choose their own outcomes and live with the sometimes devastating consequences. Even the framing story, as a fading Daisy tells her daughter (Julia Ormond’s face couldn’t look more weathered) the story of Benjamin, is told in cold, harsh greys, with the threat of a hurricane raging outside. The Brad Silberling version would have played this out in golden light and with syrupy strings.
But for all its coolness it never relinquishes the poignancy of its premise — that time is the nemesis of love — and this is the beating heart of the film. As the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, that starts as a childhood friendship and goes through numerous peaks and rejections, moves forward, everything points towards the sweet spot where the couple’s ages will be more or less in synch. Fincher doesn’t rush getting them together — before that can happen, Benjamin has a heartbreaking affair with the wife of a diplomat, superbly played by Tilda Swinton, conducted mainly in a hotel in the dead of night— or contrive them getting it on. And when this finally does happen, it is shot through with the knowledge that their passion can only be fleeting, that their physical forms are heading in completely opposite directions to their increasingly simpatico emotions. It is this feeling that washes over the film: a tangible and sincere sense of melancholy, a lament for the transitory nature of both love and life.
As much as it is about an intimate relationship, Fincher plays it out against a huge canvas. Starting with World War I — a bravura tracking shot depicts a battleground but rewinds the film to see soldiers spring back to life and explosions dwindle back to nothing, again commenting on the implacable march of time — and working its way into the 21st century, Button doesn’t whack you over the head with its decade-spanning, refusing to serve up an endless parade of pop hits, bad fashions and times-they-are-a-changin’ news footage. Instead, Fincher’s images are small and recognisable, the kind of shots you might find in your own family photo albums. Similarly, the film jumps from New Orleans to Murmansk to India and from big moment to big moment; Button is a film as happy handling a terrific sea battle in which Button’s tugboat has a run-in with a Nazi U-boat as the smallest gesture, such is its dexterity and detail.
The fact we’ve got this far and haven’t mentioned the digital and prosthetic de-ageing techniques is testament to how quickly you forget about them — Fincher has bigger emotional, intellectual fish to fry. If the visions of Pitt as young Benjamin, decrepit with the face of a wizened prune, are impressive, even more startling are the shots of Benjamin older in age, with Pitt visibly younger than he is in Thelma & Louise. Watching Pitt devolve from his dotage to his teens is a leap forward in effects to rival The Abyss and Terminator 2 but without ever shouting about it. The possibilities for actors wanting to realistically revisit former glories without going anywhere near a surgeon’s scalpel are now achievable and endless.
That the trick never feels tricksy is partly down to Pitt’s gentle, sympathetic performance. Button is a strange central figure. Like Gump, Button is a passive, almost uninteresting character (unlike Gump, he is a sexual being, the film getting laughs from the disjunct between the randy young man’s hormones and the old man’s body), Pitt’s subtlety resulting in the kind of performance the Academy could overlook. There is a lovely early moment where young-in-age but old-in-body Benjamin flexes his muscles like a circus strongman and Pitt’s face glows with child-like glee.
Fincher’s decision to pull the easy emotional punches could well cost him Oscar glory. But it doesn’t matter, because he has made a film for the ages, not just February 6. If you look hard enough there are grace notes in Benjamin Button, from a Tinkerbell-like humming bird flying over a scene of World War II carnage to Benjamin and Daisy frolicking in a sailing boat off Florida Keys, just as a NASA spacecraft lights up the sky behind them, that resonate for true romantics everywhere. And, unlike 99.9 per cent of other Hollywood movies, it earns them.
Aptly for a film so concerned with time, Button is 13 minutes shy of three hours and just flies by. If this is Fincher selling out, can he sell out more often please?