Back in May, after seeing the trailer for the new David Fincher film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it became my most anticipated film of the year. So when I had an opportunity to see it early with a Q & A following the screening with Fincher, a director I hold in high esteem, I jumped at the chance.
What initially drew me in the trailer was the combination of the dreamlike imagery and the tragic implications of a love story where one of the characters is aging in reverse. Fortunately, this element of the film works brilliantly. It contains emotional truths combined with a thoughtful meditation on the aging process. Unfortunately, it only constitutes about an hour of a nearly three hour movie. Further unfortunate is that the other two hours consists of a rather tedious, Forrest Gump like story of an innocent man-child (literally) and his journey through a world which sees him coming face to face with an assortment of colorful characters, historical landmarks, magical Negroes, and metaphorical hummingbirds. The tedium is tempered with beautiful cinematography and seamless innovative special effects; the playful technical advancements in the reverse aging process and impending doom plays to Fincher’s cinematic strengths (he’s a self-proclaimed cynical bastard), much more than the whimsical nature of the first two-thirds. Symbolically the film does not begin to reach it's potential (penetrates, if you will) until Benjamin and his love Daisy's relationship is consummated.
At its current running time, the film, which is well paced, feels either too short or too long. The F. Scott Fitzgerald short story it’s based upon is only 30 pages, and I assume (having never read it), that the crux is the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy, which is the most developed aspect. In the Q & A, Fincher said the original screenplay by Eric Roth (who not so coincidentally wrote the screenplay for Gump) was nearly 400 pages and the shooting script was somewhere along the lines of 240 pages (and I have to ask what an Academy Award winning, successful commercial Hollywood screenwriter is doing writing a 400 page screenplay?), and the truncation of a longer story is felt as well, most specifically in the impact of a very minor character whose death is the motivating factor for Benjamin to leave his surroundings and venture out into the world.
Despite some major reservations, I would recommend anyone who is interested to definitely see this in the theatre, if only for the widescreen scope and technical craftsmanship. Both Brad Pitt, who is an underrated actor and is on a hell of a streak with this, Burn After Reading and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Cate Blanchett give wonderful performances, each providing depth that reaches beyond the characters as written. While it’s hard to gauge the true response of the audience I watched it with considering the sycophantic questions lobbied Fincher’s way, they seemed to be completely with the film for the entire time (my wife though had pretty much the same reaction as I) and it’s classic epic filmmaking milieu should resonate with the majority of viewers. Even if the last hour, especially the devastating conclusion, is the only section that reaches the heights that Fincher was aiming, a flawed film that is one third of a masterpiece offering something unique is ultimately more fulfilling than the umpteenth treaty on the holocaust, disease suffering and biopics that normally litter the Academy Award season.