David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
13Jan/120

David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The time has come and I was completely right.I shouldn't have picked this little film project.  Everything I write turns into a theoretic disaster.  I guess I really don't have anything interesting to say about Benjamin Button at all.  Isn't there anyone who knows anything interesting about Benjamin Button?

Amanda: Fine. I’ll do it for you, Andrew, but only because I understand your frustration with the movie and because I have several things to say about it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has to be the most tepid and disappointing David Fincher movie to date. The story was about a man who aged backwards, directed by the same director who gave us captivating characters like Tyler Durden and Detective David Mills (yes, these characters are both played by Brad Pitt, that’s intentional) and the movie couldn’t bother to make me care beyond a sideshow interest.

The story is simple, but nobody involved with the movie wanted to capture the fascinating material for what it was, and instead decided to cast the material into the dredge of the self-important, overindulgent and ponderous bog of malaise. Just because the main character ages backwards does not mean it is mystical and meaningful just in itself.  If I am bored by a character aging in reverse, something went horribly wrong.

One problem with this movie, to me anyways, is that the changes to the original material were not only unnecessary, but actually are a detriment. One difference is the length of the material. The eleven chapter short story took me around a hour to read (you can read the story for free here) and it was a captivating and thought-provoking read. It presented an interesting idea to the reader and executed said material in a concise and enjoyable way. Nothing felt forced or overly long.

Another change made was the mindset of the main character matched the age of the perceived chronological age of the main character rather than the actual chronological age (the movie portrayed the latter). This seemingly minute change is actually important. In the original story, Benjamin Button joins the military at a young age, but because he looks older and has an older man’s mindset, he is elevated to a high rank early on and is given a great level of respect.

Later in the story, he rejoins the military, but because he looks young and has a younger mindset, no one believes him when he says that he has attained a high ranking in the military from a previous war, which understandably frustrates Benjamin. I thought this was a very interesting part of the story because Benjamin, despite all the work and sacrifice he made, cannot enjoy the fruits of his labor because of his perceived age.

Let’s compare this to the movie. By having Benjamin’s mental age correspond with physicality rather than chronology, it take away any internal conflict from the character and, in turn, makes the character exceeding shallow and, worst of all, boring. The only conflict he really suffers is through an interpersonal relationship with Daisy (played by Cate Blanchett), and I am more interested in how Daisy could deal with being involved with a man who ages backwards mentally and physically. She is not the main character, but I am much more invested with her than the main character. That says something.

I see similarities in Fincher and author Stephen King on how they were edited after they achieved a level of popularity/clout in their industry. The way that they were edited…was they weren’t. The critic Roger Ebert has a saying that “no good movie is too long and no good movie is short enough” and I agree with this. Yet, I also think there is some wiggle room such as a good movie can become great at the right length.

The biggest flaw of Button, which I am a fan of, is that it was about half hour too long. Much like most of King’s books are over 1000 pages when they could have been better at 600-700, most of Fincher’s films are now bumping up against 3 hours and who knows if they could have been better if they were only 2. In Benjamin Button and with Dragon Tattoo, I felt like some of the story was stretched almost to the breaking point, but I would rather give directors like Fincher final cut and go long than some studio cutting their film to ribbons.

One thing I do want to mention about the film and a reason I do like it in spite of the flaws that you correctly mentioned is I see it as a Rorschach print of a film. The movie goes from birth to death and all the stops of life in between. Since all aspects of life are given some time front and center in the movie, it touches different people who are at various stages in their life. I have talked to other fans of the film and all of them liked or were touched by a diverse set of scenes. A friend who was younger and just was getting out of his first adult relationship that was bound to fail, really liked the scenes with Tilda Swinton.

My mom, who just lost her mother a year before, was emotional when it showed the grown up daughter taking care of the elderly Cate Blanchett. For me, the scene that ripped me up was when Button leaves his family, including his young daughter. The scene of him with his girl one last time on her birthday ripped me up. Even now, when I think of the visuals of him looking back at his wife while the red balloon rises in the air and it makes me a little chocked up.

The reason for this is simply, I had a girl about that age and I couldn’t imagine getting up and never seeing her again, I projected my feelings into the film and had a memorable experience with it. Sure the characters are one-dimensional and Benjamin seems to take everything pretty well in stride, but maybe the characters were made that way in order for viewers not to see the characters but themselves. A little deep thought to go with our Brad Pitt.

Amanda, have any thoughts on my out-there analysis?

Amanda: Well if we go along Ebert’s logic, then this was not a good film. I agree with you that Fincher is now making longer movies, and I don’t mind a longer movie as long as the length is necessary, but I think Benjamin Button was too long. If we are going to compare the pacing difference between Benjamin Button and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, then all I can say is that Benjamin Button was dragging at its cold pace, whereas Dragon Tattoo moved like a bullet train (at least until the last 15 minutes). The movie too caught up in its “fantastical” nature that it becomes ponderous for the sake of pondering and that makes for a slow movie.

I’m glad you got something out of this movie, but I would hesitate to call this movie a Rorschach movie because I did not get a damn thing out of this movie like you did. I don’t have any kids and my parents are alive and kicking, so there’s no huge emotional heart-string tugging moments for me. Maybe your definition of a Rorschach movie is different than mine, because when I think of a Rorschach movie, I think of a very obtuse and abstract movie, which Benjamin Button was not. It actually highlights why I have a problem with this movie: It’s unnecessarily emotionally manipulative for the sake of being Oscar-bait.

To clarify, when I say unnecessarily emotionally manipulative, I mean that the movie inserts ubiquitous and vague emotional scenes (e.g. Cate Blanchett caring for her ailing mother) that were not present in the original story just to make you cry because you can relate (I mean you in the universal sense and you specifically, Ryan, because I could not get invested in this movie). If the story is good enough, you don’t need to manipulate me that way.

I don’t mind a tear-jerker, but I do mind a pretentious tear-jerker, and I especially mind a pretentious tear-jerker high-jacking the pain of Hurricane Katrina just to make itself topical and poignant. I’ve been watching When The Levees Broke and it is a very hard documentary to watch, so I get really angry when I see something as devastating as Katrina used for pathos just like Forrest Gump did (but without the Baby Boomer ego stroking). I personally found it to be in bad taste.

A few last thoughts before I go. We have been talking a lot of Cate Blanchett’s character and not Benjamin Button, so that solidifies my “Benjamin Button is an uninteresting character” idea. From the start of the movie, the parallel journeys of Daisy and Benjamin Button are set up so they would find and love each other in the short time they are of similar age chronologically and physically, so when Daisy actually says “We met somewhere in the middle”, I almost wanted to scream, “We know! Thanks for explaining the excruciating obvious because I am too stupid to figure this out on my own.” Last thing, am I the only one creeped out by Daisy taking care of Benjamin Button when he is old/a baby? The Freudian subtext is practically slapping me across the face.

Well, that’s the last of what I have to say about this movie. What about you, Ryan?

It is funny that you mention Forrest Gump because the person who adapted that movie also adapted Benjamin Button and his faults are all over both pictures. The screenwriter, Eric Roth, is a very confusing writer because he can make overly simplistic and too much to handle fairy tales like Gump, but he is also the man who wrote the excellent Munich and The Insider. I have many problems with how the movie was set up in many places and I don’t think the writer in this genre and Fincher made a good pairing, but the movie overcame these problems.

This might confuse you but I agree with most of your complaints. The using of Katrina was poorly shoehorned in the movie for few reasons other than to tug at the heart.  Button stumbles through his own film with very little character building and the movie drags more than once. Yet, I still found much to like about the film. The scene where Blanchett dances in the moonlight is a gorgeous scene and cinematographer Caludio Miranda deserved to win an Oscar for that scene alone.

I might have thought Brad Pitt slept walked through the film but Blanchett did a good job with what little she was given. I could understand how the end could be seen as creepy, but it actually worked on me and I found it tragic. In the last few years of their lives, she has to take care of him like a kid with changing his diapers and feeding him etc. This happens often in real life with loved ones, but never this literal. Again this scene could have been awful, but Blanchett keeps it from being laughable with her performance.

The movie has it flaws but I like it despite them. I will even go a step further and say of the five movies nominated that year for the Oscar, I think Button is by far the best. This was a passion project for Fincher and I find it interesting because it is the movie that shows him at his most romantic, something that his other movies never even hinted at. Although I don’t think the movie works flawlessly, I would still love to see Fincher tackle another film like this, possibly with a different writer. If he does make another movie in similar tone, I hope the time you can get caught up in the magic like I did with this one.

Next time Andrew and I discuss a movie that works beautifully when the deck was stacked against it. Also I will get really mad when I think how much The Social Network was screwed over at the Oscars.

Posted by Andrew

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