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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Benjamin Button': Fincher's triumph or folly?

Having heard that I saw "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" the other night, people keep asking me: What's it like? Can it possibly make its money back? (Estimates of the film's budget begin at around $150 million.) Is it an Oscar movie?

The real insiders tend to ask a more knowing question: Is this the movie that proves that David Fincher actually has a commercial sensibility? Or is it a $150-million art film?

Buttonposter2It's a fair question. If you asked me to name the pantheon directors of our time, I'd put Fincher right up at the top, along with Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. But since Fincher's breakthrough hit, "Seven," way back in 1995, the director has made four films. Only one--the 2002 thriller "Panic Room"--was a hit. None of the other three, "Zodiac," "The Fight Club" and "The Game," made more than $48 million in U.S. box office, even though they were bold and amazing films. The rap on Fincher is that while he's a brilliant technician, he's emotionally cool--so much so that if you enter "David Fincher" and "cold and chilly" in Google, you get 15,700 hits.

Written by Eric Roth, "Benjamin Button" was supposed to be different, giving Fincher a more life-affirming canvas to work with, telling the epic saga of a man who ages in reverse, born old, but growing younger every day. But for all the film's impressive work--it's full of bravura filmmaking, from start to finish--I found it somewhat remote, perhaps because its hero, played by Brad Pitt, is largely a passive observer of events around him. He's something of a second cousin to Forrest Gump, the hero of another Roth-penned film, who like Benjamin Button has a syrupy Southern accent and largely floats through life like a feather, more of an observer to events than a real protagonist, though the mood of "Button" is far different than "Gump," more melancholy than whimsical.

I'm hardly alone here. In Contention's Kristopher Tapley called the movie "strangely cold," with Fincher bringing "an arm's length approach to the emotions in the film." Variety's Todd McCarthy termed "Button" "absorbing, even moving, but an emotionally cool film." McCarthy raises a fascinating issue--is "Button's" chilliness a direct result of Fincher's sensibility, or is it possible that "the picture might have been warmer and more emotionally accessible had it been shot on film." Digital, McCarthy argues, is a cold medium while celluloid is a hot one, leading him to wonder if the film, "with its desired cumulative emotional impact, should be shot and screened on film to be fully realized."

While McCarthy makes a provocative argument, I suspect "Button" is the wrong test case for the digital vs. celluloid debate, since it seems obvious that Fincher, for all his gifts, belongs in the Michael Mann school of cinema--he's a filmmaker as cerebral artist, more brainy and visceral than gauzy or emotional. Fincher simply seems to have a cooler body temperature than most of us mere mortals. Perhaps that's why "Button" has such a split personality--its whole conceit, of a man aging in reverse, is a pure movie idea, but the result is part mesmerizing dream, part magic trick. Fincher gets to play with so many visual effects that you sometimes feel he's showing off--when Button is frolicking in the Florida Keys, Fincher can't resist putting a rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral in the background, just to make sure we're paying attention.

Fincher has made a movie that will be endlessly debated, for its storytelling craft as well as for the overwhelming nature of its visual effects. But there's no getting around the fact that the prevailing mood in "Benjamin Button" is one of melancholy, either because it's the tone that best fits Fincher's gifts or because it's the tone that best suits the film's solitary hero--while we're all trudging forward, his body's clock is spinning in the wrong direction.

 
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"its whole conceit, of a man aging in reverse, is a pure movie idea"

I understand what you mean when you say that, but the short story is completely engrossing on paper. And I wanted to touch on the observation that Pitt plays Button more as an observer of the Forrest Gump-persuasion. In the story, Button comes across as an observer to something outside of himself. He doesn't know why he's different, why he's aging in reverse. The story mentions that he goes to war and becomes a hero, etc., but it never dives headlong into the minutae of the details of those subplots. It is more concerned with exploring the idea of reverse-aging and the emotional toll it takes on Button. I haven't seen the film, but I would imagine that's the feeling that Pitt and Fincher were trying to convey. I may be wrong about that, but having only read the story, I can only assume.

I can't help but feel as though the writers criticizing the film as being overly melancholy or cold are missing the ENTIRE point of Benjamin Button. It has little to do with Fincher's sensibilities and everything to do with the thematic focus of the story. This is a story about the inevitability of aging and death. It's a story about the temporary nature of the love and hurt we experience throughout our lives. HOW THE HELL IS IT NOT GOING TO BE MELANCHOLY? I quickly lose patience with those in the press trying to drum up some sort of non-existent controversy. Ooo! Fincher's too cold! I say the man just has taste and enough maturity to know that if you're doing a big movie about "Life" it's gotta have a heavy dose of the dark stuff if it's going to be even remotely truthful. Here is why Fincher was the PERFECT director for this film. Too many others would have tipped this material into the saccharine and cheese-laden (Forrest Gump) wasteland that is the usual studio fare.

You have to keep in mind that if you're making a $150 million movie, it has to be mainstream enough to get at least 25 million people to want to pay $10 to go to see it. I love Fincher's work too, but something like this needs a Spielberg touch and not a George Lucas touch. If an overwhelming number of critics find it cool or cold, you really can't argue that they're wrong. That's their opinion. And if moviegoers can't get emotionally involved with the characters, then the film is not going to attract 25 million customers and it will continue Fincher's record of making technically brilliant, but not mainstream enough films.

"pantheon directors of our time"? "Pantheon" is a noun only, not an adjective. Thanks.

I don’t feel that a melancholy film is necessarily a bad thing – though I will agree that such a tone stands a good chance of turning off a healthy percentage of moviegoers. Bad news financially, of course, but I do think that serious movie buffs will attend.

In terms of whether it is the medium or Fincher’s sensibility that may be responsible for the chilliness of Benjamin Button, can I vote for both? I recognize the freedom and ease that the digital format can lend the artistic process, but it does strike me as a particularly cold medium. And Fincher does tend toward a certain chilliness, and so I suspect that the combination of his approach and the digital medium are factors in the mood of the film.

I should say, however, that I feel the issue of Fincher’s ‘chilliness’ has been overstated. His films can be melancholy, even grim (hello, Se7en), but Panic Room, for all of its genre conventions, boasted a genuinely warm performance b y Jodie Foster. And Zodiac, while certainly clinical in its treatment of police work and crime, nonetheless demonstrated a care for the humanity of its central characters that I felt was new to Fincher’s work.

One last thing about this terms used here: I don’t think that describing a film as melancholy in mood necessarily denotes that a chilly world view.

Fincher a Pantheon director with Eastwood and Michael Mann? What about Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Gus van Sant, Ridley Scott? Fincher has never made a movie that was a critical success and a commercial success, nor has he been an original. He is script dependent, unable to transcend the material. His imagery is derivative, dependent on eighties Ridley Scott. His Zodiac was barely better than The Zodiac, if at all. His films are underlit exercises in sadism, more fun for him to do than for the audience to participate. The trailer for his latest features overpropped, overwardrobed, overworked moments completely lacking in spontaneity. Pantheon? What about Spike Jonze, Michel Gondri, Peter Jackson, Chan- Wook, Cristian Munglu, Alfonso Cuaron...?

This film was shot digitally. I actually believe that film is a better captured medium. There are constraints with film since film is more expensive than a hard drive. Filmmakers need limitations to capture 'Lightning in a bottle'. 50 takes in digital is not as special as 10 takes on film. Knowing that you've got to get the shot with the film stock you have. That is the magic folks..

This film was shot digitally. I actually believe that film is a better captured medium. There are constraints with film since film is more expensive than a hard drive. Filmmakers need limitations to capture 'Lightning in a bottle'. 50 takes in digital is not as special as 10 takes on film. Knowing that you've got to get the shot with the film stock you have. That is the magic folks..

I attended a screening of this movie. I am not a professional critic, but am a critical moviegoer. I loved this movie. I can't comment in any intellectual way on the fact that it was shot digitally, as opposed to being shot on film. I can say, though, that I felt the movie had heart. I was mesmerized throughout and left the screening melancholy, sad, but moved. Brad Pitt did an excellent job as did Cate Blanchett. Plus, the actress playing Button's mother was outstanding. I simply enjoyed it, and would strongly encourage friends to check it out. The director made the absolutely unreal seem so possible and believable.


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