Danny Boyle and David Fincher are both directors who have had their more successful moments when dealing with darker issues. Danny Boyle’s tales of murder, addiction and rampant viruses are among his most successful and effective films. David Fincher’s career started with a sci-fi/horror effort as apart of one of the key franchises in the genre’s history; has made 2 brilliant but very different serial killer tales and given us one of the most-quoted generation-definers in years in the shape of Fight Club. Both of the had lacked serious Oscar contention until this year, both of them with films that aimed away from these darker shades and towards the more uplifting, inspiring end of the market.
So why did the British director and the Indian story take the spoils? All the ingredients were there for Benjamin Button; one megastar, one star, visual effects that sell the essence of the story, and a story that should appeal to any film-goer who wants something unusual and intriguing.
The answer is, ultimately, that it’s contrived. It’s a machine, an end in itself, too purpose-driven for something that would love to be whimsical and charming. If the goal was to intrigue, then we needed at lease some explanation of why the title character ages backwards – or at least a sub-plot where people try to find out, but ultimately come up with nothing. But no, it’s just left hanging. If the goal was to invoke wonder and awe and magic, then somebody had to express it, or trade in it. If it was meant to alternately horrify and make us fall for BB, then the make-up (for all it’s Oscar-winning technical brilliance) needs to show us a soul, not just a skin; to me, nothing ever really seemed to hurt or threaten anyone, until the very end at least If it’s meant to make self-referential jokes about history and the cultural icons whose era Brad Pitt’s central character (in his physical prime, with no make-up) lives through, then we need something with more integrity then a James Dean rip-off scene. If we’re meant to believe that Cate Blanchett’s character is really a dancer, then we need to believe that she does something other than dancing some of the time – I just don’t believe dancers go out dancing after the show or out of the theatre; all she is, at the end of it all, a cardboard cut-out. If it’s meant to be an inspiring, romantic love-story, then we need some chemistry.
You may say that Slumdog Millionaire treads the lines of some of those faults – but that’s a film driven by story and character and place. Benjamin Button is driven by desire to press buttons until we react with the tears that David Fincher says he shed on first reading the script. Problem is, button pressing may work for some, but it’s not going to change anyone the way Danny Boyle’s film has.
It’s by no means all bad, it just could have been so much more. The last few minutes, with the aging woman nursing him through his regression into physical childhood was beautiful, painful, sad, inevitable. We could have had more of that; if the rest of the film had measured up to it, we could have had a masterpiece on aging, our bodies and the search for a creator.
It’s a shame we didn’t get that. David Fincher is capable of genuine brilliance, whose first serial-killer film told us more about sin then many religious tracts; he’s a man capable of more insight than he probably knows. With Benjamin Button, he falls short; compared to the film that beat it, this is a life-time away.