Director David Fincher’s new film, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, is not initially what one would expect from the director of FIGHT CLUB, SE7EN, THE PANIC ROOM and ZODIAC. But tonally, it’s exactly what one would expect from the teaming of screenwriter Eric Roth and David Fincher. It is inevitable that BENJAMIN BUTTON will be compared to FORREST GUMP. There are similarities, not the least of which is that Mr. Roth was the screenwriter on that film as well. But GUMP was a whimsical film, episodic and full of director Robert Zemeckis’ bright palette and energetic camera moves. BUTTON, on the other hand, while similarly episodic (and that term is not meant, by the way, as a criticism), is infused with Fincher’s dark directorial nature. And for this viewer, that was a blessing. BUTTON is steeped in melancholy. There is an air of loneliness that pervades the film, even through its lighter moments; a sadness that clings to the characters like a warm, damp cloth that never quite evaporates.
Like many of my favorite films, BUTTON screenwriter Roth has found unusual and thoughtful ways to address questions and notions that others would have presented more directly. For me, it’s the magic of storytelling that allows us to–not necessarily disguise our questions and themes–but to put them in a context that allows them to sneak up on us and work their way under our skin before we have a chance to dismiss them or fend them off. Roth was also the screenwriter on another one of my favorite contemporary films, THE INSIDER as well as my favorite Steven Spielberg film of the past 20 years, MUNICH.
BUTTON was based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but it sounds like Roth, from the Q&A that followed the screening I attended, kept little more than the concept of the original. The script had also been worked on for many years by Robin Swicord when the film was moving through the hands of various directors like Ron Howard (with John Travolta starring–eek!) and Steven Spielberg. The story also fell into the hands of Spike Jonze with Charlie Kaufman taking a pass at the script. Roth’s screenplay was almost helmed by director Gary Ross, before landing comfortably in the hands of Mr. Fincher. And for that I am thankful. All of the above-mentioned directors have their talents and their visions, but it is Fincher’s sensibility mixed with Roth’s insights and ability to not write according to any mathematical formula, that allows BUTTON to rise above what it so easily could have become.
In order to bring this tale to the screen, an enormous amount of digital work was inevitable. Whereas some stories get lost in their own effects budgets, BUTTON allows the story to dictate the effects, not the other way around. If I had any complaint in this department, it might be a few too many sunsets and sky shots that felt more “altered” than necessary, creating more of a fable-like atmosphere than the rest of the film dictates. But this never detracts from the story for more than a moment.
Performances are wonderful all around with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett perfectly cast and bringing with them just the right amount of emotional weight and nuance to ensure the film never becomes melodramatic, farcical or, worse, a mere contrivance. The score by French composer Alexandre Desplat captures the perfect mood and tone to compliment Fincher’s visual style and cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s exquisite lighting and color palette.
This is not a film that will send crowds exuberantly rushing into the streets but instead, at a full 164 minutes, will send them home with something brewing in their guts; notions of love and maturity, of birth and death, of nature and what it means to be human.