Posted on Saturday, August 30th, 2008 by Peter Sciretta
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I just got out of the David Fincher tribute (which I will write about at length later) but for now I want to share my first impressions on the 20 minutes of footage from Fincher’s new film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was screened at the event. First off, I want to say that I’m a die hard Fincher fan. I’ve loved everyone of his film, with the slight exception of Panic Room, which I still enjoyed. Fight Club is in my top 10 all time favorite films. Like many others, I was amazed at the trailer for Benjamin Button. It was probably the best dramatic trailer I’ve seen in years. So to say that I’m excited about Benjamin Button would be an understatement.
Then rumors began to circulate about a three hour plus long movie, and an angry studio which was battling with Fincher to turn in a shorter film. And then Paramount dropped Fincher’s Heavy Metal, which was set up at the studio. The official reason given was that Fincher’s vision of the project was too dark and sexy for the studio. But if one were to connect the dots, you see a connection to the supposed feud behind the scenes over the Ben Button running time. Last I heard, the film was cut down to around two hours and forty five minutes, and rumor had it that the studio was still unhappy with the length. Again, this is all hearsay. Nothing confirmed, just things you hear around Hollywood.
I’m all for conserving the director’s artistic vision, and I’ve enjoyed most of Fincher’s work, even if Zodiac could have been 30 minutes shorter on the back end. So when I first heard rumors of the studio pushing Fincher to cut back, my first response was to write it off as another movie studio exec that just didn’t get it. But could they be right?
The footage I screened tonight was met with disappointment and concern. There are moments of magic and wonder, but interrupted and surrounded by moments which had me questioning, “Is this really the best footage he has?” The 20-minute package contained bits and pieces of scenes which spanned from the beginning of the film, probably past the half way mark. It was made clear that the film is bookmarked with Cate Blanchett’s character as an an older lady in a hospital bed being read the life story of Benjamin Button by a younger woman, presumably her daughter. But the whole framing device seemed rather confusing. Why is she being read the story of Ben button’s life? It’s hard to understand without context. Again, we’re only seeing pieces of scenes.
We see how Benjamin’s mother died during childbirth, and how his father ran away with the newborn and left him on the steps of a house, for a black couple to discover. A young black woman decides to take Benjamin in, giving him his name. A doctor explains that the child is going through overall body failure, similar to that of an 80-year-old man. This doesn’t scare Queenie off, as she believes he is a miracle. Benjamin is brought to one of those traveling churches with a tent set-up and a preacher who claims to cure people through faith. A 7-year-old Button is brought on stage to be healed. The Preacher gets him to rise up from his wheel chair and walk. But instead, Button slams face first into the floor, prompting a weird moment of laughter from the audience at Telluride. There are many of these moments of comedy that abruptly interferes with the dramatic flow of the scenes exhibited.
Years later, Benjamin is now working on a boat, when his Captain asks him if he has ever been with a Woman, which he had not. So he is brought to a whorehouse and shown the power of a regular income. The moments that really didn’t work for me involved Benjamin’s romantic relationships with the characters played by Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton. And sure, it might have helped to have seen these films in a better context, but the way they were presented, I felt myself becoming uninvolved with the story every time either one of them appeared on screen. I have a strong feeling that if the romantic relationships in this film don’t work, the film might not work. There is even a scene later on where Benjamin watches Cate dance sexily for him in the moonlight. It was one of those sequences which has you wondering, where is this going, when is it going to end, hasn’t it gone on long enough, hoping for the next scene to begin sooner rather than later. I talked to a bunch of festival-goers after the screening, and they seemed to agree that there were quite a few elongated uninteresting moments which might benefit from some trimming.
The cinematography was beautiful yet subdued from Fincher’s usual flash. Brad Pitt delivers a performance that will make you forget that he’s behind the make-up. The transformation will make you believe that a man can age backwards. I’m still excited to see the finished product, I’m just a little disappointed. It was good but not great. Could it be that the film wasn’t what I expected, or maybe not what I wanted?