One cannot blame David Fincher for wanting to try something different. A period piece spanning the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first, concerning a man who ages backwards, seems on the one hand very unlike what one would expect from the director of Seven and Fight Club, and yet completely obvious that he should attempt something so daring.
And, in a way, tackling a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald certainly seemed the way to do it. I have not read the story on which Benjamin Button is based, but I’d be willing to bet that it contains some of the darkness as we’ve seen from Fincher at his best.
Oddly enough, however, Fincher appears to be channeling not Fitzgerald but Steven Spielberg, in particular the Spielberg of “Kick the Can” from Twilight Zone: The Movie. And that turns out to be only one of the picture’s problems.
Using the impending landfall of Hurricane Katrina as a framing device (why, I’m not sure), the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) gives her daughter a worn journal by Benjamin Button, born looking like an old man. Why is Benjamin an infant-sized old man, instead of fully grown' Benjamin lives through the twentieth century, while aging backwards; he grows younger as everybody around him grows older, his wrinkles disappear as his Daisy’s line her face.
It’s an interesting idea, and would have made an outstanding Twilight Zone episode in the 1960s. But Fincher has a life story to tell, all seventy-plus years, and he makes sure we’re witness to all of it. So we get to see Benjamin’s relationships with both Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) and Daisy, but we have to watch his first steps, his first sexual experience, and his equivalent of middle-age crazy.
And it feels like we’ve slogged through every single moment of his life. Though the cast is in fine form, they are held back by the movie’s sluggish pace. It doesn’t help that Fincher tells the story as an allegory, and thus attempts to give it a timeless quality. The result is we frequently do not know exactly when Benjamin is in his story until somebody tells us. Spielberg, for all his schmaltzy excess, at least would have given us hints about the time period through the clothing and the cars.
One cannot blame David Fincher for trying something different. But next time, he should trust his instincts and make a film distinctly his, as opposed to one that could have been told with more brevity by somebody else.