The Films of David Fincher – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Film Review)

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There is never any point obsessing over film awards, least of all the American Academy Awards, but I have to say, how Zodiac missed any nominations and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ever garnered anything other than a tech achievement nod is a mystery greater than the identity of the Zodiac killer. I know many people love The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it is an obvious “this generations” Forrest Gump, having been written by the same person, but it is my contention that this is where David Fincher abandons his creative side and embraces his adman, not making bad films, but obstinately settling for middle of the road that will generate strong income and keep people happy. From this film forward he will appeal to popularity and the lowest common denominator, making films that are easy to watch and sparkle with technical brilliance. Something in David Fincher died after the epic brilliance of Zodiac, which was an underrated financially unsuccessful masterpiece, that has not been revived by any subsequent project, and makes his next film a horrible disappointment. For this film lover, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looked so hideous in the trailer that it wasn’t until this Fincher retrospective that I even saw the thing – and I consider myself a great Fincher fan. But this is by far my least favourite Fincher film, and one I doubt I will revisit – even as I watch Se7en, Zodiac and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo at least four times a year each. But even rattling off my favourites as I did there, we can see with TCCOBB Fincher is in a genre so far out of his comfort zone he appears as a lost puppy of a director, meandering, never getting a solid grip on his material (few people in this film do) bringing up a contention I have made before, that when Fincher has a bad or mediocre script, he simply can’t make anything of it, including giving a solid answer to the question all of us who love his films ask, which is why on earth did he make it? TCCOBB can’t give us a good reason for its existence, coming across as vapid when it should be stirring, confusing when it should be thematic and cold when it should be sentimental.

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It is punctuated with beautiful Fincher moments, and it is the first of his films to take his famous abilities with mise-en-scène and apply it to the more positive end of the spectrum of human emotion. Scenes such as the first date between Benjamin and Daisy (not the name of Fitzgerald’s heroine of the original short story though typical of Eric Roth to make a cumbersome “point” like that, which he no doubt considers very clever) a transfixed Benjamin watching her dance and move about in the moonlight, and the touching portrayal of Daisy’s visits with Benjamin in his old age when he presents as a toddler are truly beautiful, filling us with wonder that Fincher had it in him to be so wistful. However, the inconsistency of these moments against those creepy hummingbirds, and the WTF hurricane Katrina rubbish (really?) make this one strange occurrence after another that eventually, left me feeling a measure of antagonism for the film.

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The first thing I hate about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (besides the fact that Roth in his wisdom changes the family business from a period appropriate Hardware shop into a button manufacturers – groan) is the same thing I hated about Forrest Gump – a poorly written horrible central female character whose nasty behavior is simply written in as a character flaw. This problem is all over Cate Blanchett’s performance, which never finds a strong foothold because her character is such a bitch-for-no-reason its difficult to portray her with any depth. Blanchett, whose willowy frame and angelic face scream ballerina never convinces as a dancer to the point where you can tell when a stand in arrives for her movement scenes. When she appears on stage, it’s difficult to tell it is her, even when the camera is on her face, so obvious is the replacement making it a horrible role for an actress I like a great deal. As with Forrest Gump, the mean girlfriend is pitted against the angelic mother, as if women turn into nasty creatures when they’re not fulfilling their god-given-Darwin-blessed role as nurturer.

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The second thing I hate about TCCOBB is that Eric Roth writes like it is a series of bumper bar stickers punctuated by Hallmark Cards. It’s writing cliché at its innocuous worst, so closely mimicking the horrible Forrest Gump script that it is impossible to imagine he didn’t have it beside him as he worked. Just as with Forrest Gump, his male protagonist is a disabled person who never becomes a burden on the system, rather manages to make their own way in the world, whose purpose exists mostly to inspire able-bodied folk into being better people and display a right-wing compassion that never translates as actually helping someone in need. Just as in Forrest Gump, we are bludgeoned into thinking if only disabled people got out there and took a job, they’d excel through the happy accidents of gods good graces, just as we all should, because no one in the world believes in karma like a right-wing conservative; goodness will be rewarded with great wealth – just look at me! Benjamin Button, who is rewarded with a wealth he hoards until he bestows it on his child (not his black adopted mother interestingly – who probably wouldn’t take it anyway because she believes in “equal opportunity”). Again we are told through the worst kind of schmaltzy propaganda that disabled people would do really well if they took a post at war, because we all know they will come back heroes, desperate to be productive and make their way as capitalist work horses.

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Because this is a Fincher film and not the Zemeckis/Teegarden combo, TCCOBB is a far superior film to Forrest Gump, but interestingly its best moments, like its predecessor, are in the technical skill displayed. The splicing of Brad Pitts face over the alternate bodies and the older/younger “makeup” is chillingly good. It’s astonishingly well done, and 100% the Fincher we know and love. It is so good, it is the only place where the director is properly recognisable, and interestingly, the only place he gets a solid performance from Pitt, who is as bereft as Blanchett when he is in current manifestation, but does come alive as a child inside an old man’s body. The dreariest part of the film, which unfortunately is also the most important, is the least familiar for Fincher – the love story, which he has never done before (unless you count Ripley and the Alien… ha!) and is obviously out of his depth to portray here. Not to mention the fact that Pitt and Blanchett do not have any sizzle between them – Ever. At all. In any way – and neither can find it in their own normally deep wells.

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Magic Realism has been translated into poorly conceived childishness here, and even though we all cry in the right spot at the end, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button ends up being a mish-mash of a film that never comes close to realizing the scope of its own ambition. However, David Fincher, who was not nominated for anything (oh – except a Palm d’Or) for Zodiac, his worst financial performance, is nominated for thriteen (winning three) American academy awards and comes back to more than double its one hundred and fifty million dollar budget. Fincher’s own personal reach back in time to pop over substance is richly rewarded.

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