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

November 25, 2008 | 12:40 pm

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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