Film Reviews

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher

Rating - 9/10

 In 1921, after publishing a recent short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the premier novelist of the Jazz Age, Collier’s magazine received the following letter:


I have read the story Benjamin Button in Collier's and I wish to say that as a short story writer you would make a good lunatic. I have seen many pieces of cheese in my life but of all the pieces of cheese I have ever seen you are the biggest piece. I hate to waste a piece of stationary on you but I will."

The tale in question was Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a Mark Twain inspired whimsical yarn about a man born with the physicality of an eighty-year old. As Benjamin develops, his family begin to notice their son is aging in reverse. The story continues to follow the well-to-do Benjamin through his  educational and wartime experiences, until the title character eventually regresses into a state of infancy.

Later published in Fitzgerald’s acclaimed anthology Tales of the Jazz Age, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has had somewhat of a low-key reputation in comparison to some of the author’s other short stories (Bernice Bobs Her Hair) or his novels (This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby). Despite the story’s overlooked status, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is quite possibly the first of Fitzgerald’s works to receive a feature length film adaptation able to replicate the influential author’s sense of sophistication and attention to detail.

Directed by David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button morphs from a miniscule, playful text into a visually rich, epic slice of cinematic magic realism. In spite of major alterations involving events portrayed in Fitzgerald’s text, the basic essence of the story still remains. Transplanted from Antebellum Baltimore to 20th century New Orleans, the film thematically emphasizes turbulence and dislocation through both a myriad of flashbacks encapsulating Benjamin's struggles and their corresponding diary entries read aloud for an ailing woman in a New Orleans' hospital during Hurricane Katrina.  Unlike, Fitzgerald’s amusing dissection of developmental faux-pas, Fincher’s version becomes a thought-provoking meditation on love, life, death and time.

Born on the final day of the First World War, Benjamin’s life curiously intersects with the creation of a mammoth clock inside a New Orleans’ train station. Like Benjamin, the clock measures time in reverse. In contrast to Fitzgerald's story, Fincher’s adaptation casts Benjamin as a foundling abandonded by his frightened father outside a New Orleans’ seniors home. The man-child known as Benjamin is quickly adopted by the building’s barren black housekeeper Queenie (Taraji P. Henson).

Small, withered and physically frail, Benjamin (perceptively portrayed by Brad Pitt) is primarily mistaken for an elderly citizen himself. But unlike the other residents, Benjamin simultaneously becomes physically younger, whilst developing mentally at a normal rate. His aged appearance causes social difficulties and isolation, especially when he wishes to interact with people of his own “age.” At the complex, Benjamin learns lessons through his fleeting interactions with elderly residents, middle-aged guests and young visitors.

The accrued knowledge gathered there provides Benjamin with ample amounts of purpose, joy and sorrow. He participates in the Second World War, sees the world on a small tugboat, meets disaffected individuals and bypasses eternal loves. Above all, Benjamin’s experiences provide shape to his life. He yearns to seize opportunities, but incurs limitations and restrictions, whether it be due to his age or the situations affecting those around him such as Benjamin’s constant love Daisy (a routintely superb Cate Blanchett) or his one-off fling Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton).

Based on a screenplay by Eric Roth, the film’s bildungsroman approach echoes another American film about a strange Southern outsider growing up in 20th century America, who continually crossed paths with his true love: Forrest Gump. This should be no surprise given both films were scripted by the same screenwriter. Yet, there are stark contrasts between the two films. Centrally, unlike Robert Zemeckis’ sentimental pop culture paean to 20th century America, Fincher’s film is withdrawn from the traditional cultural narrative and the landmarks of American collective conciousness. There are no meetings with politicians or artists, no overt nods toward ideological movements or national sentiments.

Periodically, this apoliitcal faintness undermines Fincher’s overall subtext. For instance, there is no analysis of race or class relations, despite Benjamin being raised by African-American parents. Nor is there any genuine attempt to reconcile Benjamin’s later accumulation of wealth. Instead, Benjamin becomes a man simultaneously of his time and not; an individual desperate to freeze time, who increasingly becomes wary of his situation. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button therefore works as a personal micro-history in reverse: an elusive and illustrative encapsulation of life’s zeniths and nadirs.

The fragility of life, love and death intersect through a directorial lyricism unwilling to capitulate to maudlin conceptions of relationships and lives. Tormented emotions are relayed through a corresponding aesthetic palette ranging from sepia-tinted nostalgia to foreboding murkiness. Subsequently, the film becomes an elongated, elegiac poem to lost loves, broken hearts, missed opportunities and delayed reactions, but also a gorgeous appreciation of fleeting interactions and purposeful happiness.

Through a combination of Fincher’s direction, Donald Burt Graham’s production design and Claudio Miranda’s exquisite cinematography, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button acquires a wonderfully rich sense of romantic, dreamlike artifice not too dissimilar from the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, or Max Ophüls’ Lola Montes. The vision is often romantic, but not sentimental; grandiose, but not bloated.

The overall effect is a truly beautiful work demonstrating Fincher’s seamless evolution from darker, claustrophobic moods to atmospheric landscapes. As demonstrated through his neglected masterpiece Zodiac, Fincher has shown the ability to create epic, detailed visual spaces. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a gorgeous example of this development: fusing delicate emotional contextualism with vivid imagery. With its classic Hollywood sensibilities and aesthetic compositions, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is both a luxurious addition to his impressive filmography and a distinct rumination on life’s frailities.