Every great filmmaker is allowed one bad film. For David Fincher, his first was his worst.
An intelligent director, Fincher cut his teeth on television commercials and music videos before making his feature debut in 1992 with a forgettable and regrettable installment in the Alien franchise. It was all uphill from there. Fincher's next five films arguably are modern classics, each impressively different from its immediate predecessor. Gen X fanboys idolize him for the basement-dwelling aggressions of Fight Club. The director brought flash -- and a needed backbone -- to pulp thrillers like The Game and Panic Room. And cineastes found plenty to appreciate in the meticulous musings of Fincher's cold-case police procedural, Zodiac.
His latest film is a bold step in an alternate direction, but it shares a single quality with Fincher's previous films: brilliance. Beautiful and incredibly moving, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button credits a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but really, screenwriter Eric Roth only lifts the basic premise of a man who is born old and ages backward. The timeframe of the source material is altered, and events imagined for the movie will not be found in Fitzgerald's story.
No matter. The journey of this unique and gentle character easily enchants as it gives new meaning to the term "turn back the clock." Born at the conclusion of WWI, the decrepit and frail Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is rejected by his father (Jason Flemyng) and left at the doorstep of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who runs a retirement home in New Orleans. The resident doctor guesses Benjamin's chances of survival are slim. Needless to say, the resilient child perseveres, and goes on to lead one of those lives most of us would envy.
With each picture, Fincher continues to improve his already impressive filmmaking skills. His dedication to specifics -- without forgetting the overall big picture -- sets him apart from the directorial pack. He's also finding collaborators who match his enthusiasm for a project. Button enjoys exquisite period detail, pillow-soft cinematography from Claudio Miranda, and a lush, inspirational score by Alexandre Desplat that enhances the film's wide array of moods.
Then there's young/old Benjamin, who Fincher creates with seamless digital trickery that somehow attaches Pitt's made-up face to another actor's body. I stared at the effect for the better part of an hour and never once saw the strings that elevate this cinematic magic trick.
Beyond his technical wizardry, Fincher is maturing as a magical storyteller. He and Roth, who won an Oscar for penning the marginally similar Forrest Gump, embrace sprawling life lessons in Button that will bewitch a willing audience. The amenable Benjamin welcomes outcasts, social misfits, and lonely souls as tour guides during his spiritual journey. They point him in the right direction until he connects with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), his soul mate.
Benjamin and Daisy's relationship ends up carrying Button, though Fincher deftly explores many variations of love with his picture. The deepest connection is Queenie's maternal love for her foster child, an eternal bond between mother and son. But Button also deals in nostalgic love for lost friends and family, as well as fleeting love exchanged between needy strangers.
Cate's great, and Henson is better as Benjamin's tender, genteel Southern mother. But it's Pitt who gives Fincher's epic its heart and soul. Acting beneath a series of digital effects or layers of makeup, Pitt still imbues Benjamin with a youthful exuberance, a wide-eyed innocence, and a passion for worldly experience.
Not that each of Benjamin's adventures fits comfortably with our perspective. His stint in the Navy seems out of place, as does a nocturnal affair Benjamin conducts with the forlorn wife (Tilda Swinton) of a foreign diplomat. But I partially blame myself. Fincher has created a supple, stuffed, and rewarding tapestry of emotions and themes. It's one of those films I imagine I'll revisit often, hopefully finding new meaning depending on where I am in my life.
As romantic, impulsive, creative, and alive as Button can be, however, Fincher rarely strays far from his somber point that life, like love, is temporary. He frames his story with a narrative device in which Daisy's daughter (Julia Ormond) reads Benjamin's diary as Daisy rots on her deathbed. As if that weren't enough, Hurricane Katrina also bears down on New Orleans as the story progresses. What seems overwrought takes on new meaning in the film's final shot, however. Floodwaters seep into a Bayou basement, overtaking a clock that bears significance in the film's opening scenes. And we know that building -- like so many buildings in the Gulf region -- will be destroyed by that devastating storm. Because, as Button soberly reminds us, nothing lasts.
Baby face, you've got the cutest little baby face.