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The UnPopular Opinion: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

06.06.2012

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THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****

This is column entry is, perhaps more so than any other before, purely my opinion

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is certainly an outlier in David Fincher’s filmography, with a PG-13 rating, 13 Oscar nominations, and a tone more fantastical in nature than anything else he has done.  Its release year of 2008 puts it squarely between ZODIAC and THE SOCIAL NETWORK and nearly ten years after the justifiably renowned FIGHT CLUB, three films which are, incidentally, the ones you'll almost always find in the top three spots of most anyone's "Best Films Directed By David Fincher" list.

But not with me. No, for me the top spot has gone to BENJAMIN BUTTON from the very first time I watched it, and so perhaps here lies the unpopular part of my opinion: not just that I like this film, but that it is David Fincher's best.  Because seven viewings later, it still affects me on a deeper level than any of Fincher’s other films. It still wholly holds up just as it did once upon time. And I still say that in my eyes it stands out as Fincher’s masterpiece.  The score is gorgeous and just as it needs to be, the cinematography is absolutely top notch, the performances are immensly layered and haunting in the truth of their humanity, and layers of meaning ripple through the fairy tale-like story and every design decision therein.

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"Our lives are defined by its opportunities... even the ones we miss."

At the end of the day no film is perfect – nor should it be. And I understand that not every directorial choice, camera technique, design decision, or performance relevant to every story. But I would argue that if there’s one film which has one “brilliant” quality and a jumble of “okay,” “really good,” and “great” qualities, then one which is brilliant across the board would ergo be a better film. Or even mostly brilliant with a few bits that are only “great.” It’s a matter of math, and to my mind BENJAMIN BUTTON adds up to a better film than any of Fincher’s others because it possesses more “really great” and “brilliant” qualities than all of those others.

This is easiest proven to me by how it holds up after years of viewings, which is also my litmus test for what makes a great film.  It still enchants me and ills me with me with wonder, it still haunts me and leaves me choking back sobs. Not only does it do these things each time I watch it, but it actually does them on a deeper level too. Which is no small feat, and what I believe to be the benchmark of the very best films. It doesn’t fall apart for me upon repeat viewings, it only digs further into my soul. It doesn’t bore me, finds subtly new ways to infect my imagination. And while I love and respect most of the other films in Fincher’s filmography (ALIEN 3 doesn't really count), with PANIC ROOM falling squarely into a “respect only” category,” none of those other films work the same way for me. They’re too focused, or dated, or driven by a single tone and intention. But THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is expansive, the effects are still beautiful, and it… well, it’s about everything.

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"It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you."

One of the biggest complaints from the loudest detractors of this film is how a great many story beats and character situations seem to be directly drawn from FORREST GUMP, another screenplay by Eric Roth. This is a point used to take down BENJAMIN BUTTON’s quality, used to discredit it as a pointless story to retell and therefore not worth the watching. But I’ve never understood that, because 1) even if this film IS awfully similar at time to FORREST GUMP this film also does everything much (much) better, and 2) there really shouldn’t be anything that strange about a writer delving deeper into similar themes and situations as their earlier work.

Shakespeare did it, only he dispersed everything out over multiple plays instead of keeping it to just one. Woody Allen has explored similar themes and circumstances with his characters for over thirty years. Spielberg has dealt with the redemption of a patriarchal figure for his whole career. Maybe Roth follows his own past Oscar-winning screenplay to closely for your personal taste, but I didn’t mind in the least because BENJAMIN BUTTON saw him do every beat from that movie more cleanly and meaningfully than it had been done before. That’s all that matters, and is certainly enough for me to forgive any similarity and move on to accepting the script for the funny, touching, heartbreaking, and deeply insightful piece that it is.

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"You'll see little man, plenty of times you be alone. You different like us, it's gonna be that way. But I tell you a little secret I find out. We know we alone. Fat people, skinny people, tall people, white people... they just as alone as us... but they scared shitless."

This is a deliberate film, paced perfectly in order to envelop us in the entirety of Benjamin’s journey. Indeed, his entire life. It is an event unlike almost seen in cinema before or since, except for maybe last year’s real Best Picture THE TREE OF LIFE. But just as ZODIAC consciously plays with the audience’s expectations of a serial killer film or FIGHT CLUB eventually subverts what we know about the main character and the message of his alter ego, so to is BENJAMIN BUTTON consciously structured in its own way: to be the full journey of a man’s entire life. We experience as he experiences, we live as he lives, and we witness every meaningful encounter in his life from birth to death.  And interwoven with all of that is the story of Daisy's death and the death of New Orleans itself, allowing us to experience the any/every emotion and conflict that Benjamin's story does not.  Once again, I say that this is film is a complete in its scope and full in its resonance.

And the single highest praise I can give to this film? The element which it shares with many of my other favorite films (LORD OF THE RINGS, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, PAN’S LABYRINTH, etc..)? It has power to constantly stun me into wonder. I’ll be watching BENJAMIN BUTTON, and all of a sudden five minutes pass and I realize that I’ve been completely absorbed by this beautiful tale of time and mortality and love and humanity and the world itself. Never before have I witnessed such a gorgeously constructed and compelling meditation on life itself, and I doubt anything will come close for a long, long time.

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"You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You can swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go."

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to ajstepenberg@joblo.com, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!

Extra Tidbit: Someone named "Tarsem" is credited as the 2nd Unit Director for India in this film. I'm pretty sure there's only one person in the filmmaking industry who goes by the single name of "Tarsem," i.e. he of THE FALL and IMMORTALS fame. So that's cool.
Source: JoBlo.com

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