From the Grave to the Cradle
Hokey Is As Hokey Does In David Fincher's Off Kilter Valentine To 20th-Century Cinema
David Fincher loves death and decay. All of his best movies, from Fight Club to Se7en to Zodiac, revel in how the world is falling apart, physically and spiritually--a decrepitude that even extends to the distressed and grainy film stock on which his gleeful doomsday parables flicker. So it makes sense to put him at the helm of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about a man who was born old and slowly grows young. Fincher's even rejoined with his muse Brad Pitt, the man who previously perfectly embodied the director's aesthetic of corroded beauty in Fight Club, and he's got a radical new digital motion capture system at his disposal to generate the faces of his characters at all ages, allowing his actors to perform without being hindered by rubbery prosthetics.
So why doesn't this movie click? What keeps Fincher from pulling its story's admittedly one-note gimmick into a satisfying bundle? Is it because Fincher excels at decay, and Benjamin Button (Pitt) has the opposite problem? He was born a geriatric bundle of wrinkles, like a hairless Shar Pei puppy, on the night of the Armistice of WW I, and abandoned by his father on the steps of an old folks home. Luckily he's adopted by the home's resident caretaker (Taraji P. Henson) and reared among his pinochle-playing, afternoon-napping peers. Only he's not their peer, since as he grows, he gains back the things the elderly people around him have lost, such as hearing and flexibility and his hairline, and he becomes curious about things--especially the bewitching red-haired girl Daisy (Elle Fanning) who comes to visit her grandmother.
These early scenes work, because Fincher's jaundiced guffaw can be heard in moments like when Benjamin's adoptive mother takes him to a faith healer revival that doesn't go quite as planned, and because the dirt-and-scratches aesthetic he adores is lavished on top the warm and sultry nostalgia of Storyville-era New Orleans. His smartest decision is to underscore Benjamin's journey through the 20th-century by using visual styles that parallel the cinema of the time. A running gag about being struck by lightning is rendered in a way that would make Mack Sennett proud, and when a grownup Daisy (Cate Blanchett) returns from her ballet troupe in Manhattan for a visit home, he frames her solo dance in a flowing red dress against a night sky lit by blue smoke, as Stanley Donen would have done for the ballet sequences in MGM musicals. (Likewise, seeing Pitt prowl the streets of Paris in a camel overcoat or dart around on a 1950s motorcycle evokes the spirit of Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni, proving he was destined for cinematic sainthood even if he'd been born 50 years earlier.)
Daisy and Benjamin fall in love, in that on-again, off-again kind of way that isn't so much about the complexity of life but about creating friction in a screenplay where there is none. And suddenly, coasting through the greatest hits of 20th-century movies, watching Daisy discard Benjamin for her younger bohemian friends only to have him discard her because he fears growing too young with her, it suddenly dawns on us. This is Forrest Gump, all over again, with flashback visuals instead of music, and a made-up reverse aging syndrome as the romance's MacGuffin instead of mental retardation.
In the hands of an accomplished sentimentalist like Robert Zemeckis, this story could have found the sweet and light touch it needs, but Fincher's modus operandi is to have his characters kick and scream out of death's grasp with black humor and a righteous man's crusade in a doomed world. Here, with a doomed man in a righteous world, he's at a loss, pushing already straining metaphors to their saccharine conclusion and never really getting a grasp on the audience's emotional investment necessary to make a true tearjerker. At the end, as Benjamin retreats into childhood and toddlerhood and finally doomed infancy, are our heartstrings plucked because we love these characters and we feel for their plight? Or is there a lump in our throat simply because it's sad to think about any baby dying? Samuel Beckett wrote that all women give birth "astride of a grave," and Fincher strains to thread that big truth through every scene of his movie. But he fumbles, and in the end we're left with nothing more profound than, as one character puts it, "We all end up in diapers."