Born at the end of WWI, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a baby with the health and appearance of an elderly man. His mother died in childbirth, and his father swiftly abandons him on the steps of a nursing home, where he's found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a woman who works at the home and raises Benjamin as her own child. We follow Benjamin's life lived in reverse over the course of the 20th century; the screenplay is by Eric Roth, who also wrote Forrest Gump, and the film's formal resemblance to Gump have already been well-documented. But those whose criticism of the film begins and ends with these similarities are stuck on the words and missing the music - in Fincher's hands, what could have been unbearably treacly (and occasionally is - damn that hummingbird) becomes oddly moving. Like Mr. Gateau (Elias Koteas), the master clockmaker in Button's prologue, Fincher's technical precision and attention to detail deepen the meaning of his work's one extraordinary quality. His films are driven by a fascination with process, whether the subject is the logistics of an elaborate game for bored millionaires, the mechanics of a home invasion or an investigation that may never be solved. In Benjamin Button, Fincher uses his peculiar protagonist to examine life itself as a process - while Gump was preoccupied with inserting its character in historically significant events, Benjamin's essential passivity as a character, his detachment from time, results in time serving only as a backdrop for universal experiences, most importantly his romance with Daisy (Cate Blanchett). While the film's images have an impressive scope, it's ultimately an ode to the pleasures of friends, family, food, drink, travel, lovemaking and The Beatles (though not in that order); Benjamin Button makes profound statement about the meaning of life, nor does it aspire to. But as a meditation on the simple joys in life, it's a rich and rewarding large-scale entertainment.
Fincher's surprising understatement extends to Claudio Miranda's painterly cinematography, Alexandre Desplat's fantastic score (which would fit just as well in a David Lean movie), and the realization of Benjamin as a character. The makeup and visual effects teams do a masterful job of making Benjamin believable at every stage in his life. What impresses most, when most digital work is usually about spectacle, is the subtlety of their approach - after a while, I forgot about looking for the seams and accepted that I was looking at an old young man. The believability of the character is aided immensely by Pitt's performance, which has been somewhat underrated; usually, even talented actors are befuddled by the motion control process, but Pitt manages to project Benjamin's emotional age and experience through his CGI/latex visage. And when Benjamin reaches middle age and looks like Brad "Sexiest Man Alive" Pitt, it's like looking at this now-familiar face through new eyes - it's a perfect marriage of his character and the star baggage he brings to the role. This brief moment where he meets Daisy in the middle (and man, is Cate Blanchett on a roll) plays less like a Hollywoodized notion of fate than a poignant expression of what it is to choose to love someone in an impermanent lifetime.
The film also boasts a strong supporting cast - Henson avoids "Mammy" stereotypes by giving Queenie poise and dignity, Tilda Swinton is excellent in her bittersweet scenes as a woman enjoying a fleeting romance, and Jared Harris, as an drunken, salty sea captain (is there any other kind?), nearly steals the film. The contemporary framing narrative, with Daisy sharing Benjamin's story with her daughter (Julia Ormond), isn't quite as successful, mostly because of the awkward incorporation of Hurricane Katrina - in a movie otherwise unconcerned with social commentary, it feels overly literal. But I can forgive this, since it allows for a devastating final shot that ties the film's themes together in a single, iconic image. Fincher was bound to lose some of his target audience with Benjamin Button - while before he's made films for geeks prone towards an ironic outlook on life (myself included), here he's trying to speak to everyone. The result isn't the masterpiece it aspires to be (or that Zodiac is), but it's refreshing to see a director pushing himself beyond his familiar territory, especially when the results are so rewarding.