Curiously strong. But more than that, curiously long. I’m so… torn here. Did I actually just see David Fincher’s make his first mediocre film. And, no, “Alien3” is not mediocre, it’s something else… that, um, I don’t know what… but not mediocre. “Button” falls into a similar no-man’s-land. I can’t dismiss it. Nor can I deny it. Nor can I like it. There are moments of beauty and heart tugging poignancy to be sure but, at the same time, so much shallowness and conventionality surrounds and ultimately chokes the truth out of this picture like a spiraling Louisiana black snake.
Throughout the decades (and, on our side, hours) a man ages backwards as his one true love grows older. Simple notion, yes, but a tricky notion to film because, as we all know, film is so literal and definite. As is is aging. But Fincher films it! Scenes of epic poetry (classic, sweeping Hollywood images consist of free roaming cliches like sunsets, tides of war, sinking boats, and unique touches like all those random shots of a guy getting hit by lightening) are married with new technology. Both classic and new iconography, however, find themselves torn asunder by a soap opera English Patient-y flash-forward set in a hospital (to quote Elane from “Seinfeld”: “DIE ALREADY!”) and horrible period movie cliches (hey, look, the aging wonder is catching The Beatles on Ed Sullivan… f-you!). David Fincher is among the best filmmakers working in America because, for one, he mines beauty and humor within decay and in darkness. This, though, isn’t a David Fincher film. Or, rather, “Button” is a Fincher film for people who don’t love Fincher. It’s beautifully dark to be sure –and beautifully shot– but it’s also a tepid and tonally confused “love story.” It’s told more in the rote storytelling tradition of a Robert Zemeckis (you are hereby warned of the shrimp-boat load amount of cloyingly quixotic biographical Forrest Gump-isms) crossed with older Spielberg which, admittedly, is better than younger Spielberg but… still.
Here’s the deal: “Button” is sentimental and Fincher is not. He’s a dark and ironic ass-hole and so am I and, well, that’s what you call love fest. This newer, kinder Fincher though is proving to be palatable to the average moviegoer and of course will be auspicious amung Oscar voters in the next few weeks. Good for Fincher… bad for Fincher fans. The filmmaker seems trapped by the romantic material on one side (he drops the ball there) the stylistic flourishes on the other (he raises the bar here) and 800-pound gorilla Brad Pitt’s delusions of actor-auteurisms on all other fronts (uh, hey, dudes, lets have a scene with Hurricane Katrina; uh, lets go to India to shoot a thirty second montage of me washing my clothes with Indians… der). The film opens with cascades of buttons but even this promising motif turns out to be a minor detail that gets lost in the literal sea of subplots and unfocused moments. An example of another one occurs when the two lovers, “meeting in the middle” of the age spectrum, swim in a lake and gaze at each other. Beautiful and all but this is not Terrence Malick. Fincher captures the look of time passing but not the feeling of it–the effect is temporal dislocation and that is indeed captured but it is also fundamentally at odds with the more traditional elements of the plot. As with the time-torn “Babel,” the love story between Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett is not as compelling as it should be (these two have no chemistry and need to stop being in movies together!). In fact, the most stirring moment of romance in this picture occurs with Tilda Swinton, playing an aging housewife that rendezvous with Button every twilight in an empty hotel. Fincher flawlessly captures the mouse stirring desolation and romantic grandeur at play. Great stuff. Beyond that –and most the film is beyond that– this is simply not the classic love story many would have you believe. The film hinges upon the curious byplay between star crossed lovers who drift and drift and connect then drift and drift. How ironic is it, then, that the film is strongest when they are not together. This is more of a lone story than a love one.
Just a year after Fincher’s pitch perfect period piece obsession “Zodiac” came to furition, it’s nice to this filmmaker (a) get a film made so quickly (maybe he’s not the Kubrickian tyrant people say), and (b) get his proper dues in terms of mainstream and critical recognition. Better ten years late than never I guess. But at what cost? It’s hard to tell. The film’s strength, Fincher’s pure talent, holds its own against its many weaknesses. And, no, the outlandish conceit of the aging backwards plot is the least of the Button’s problems. In fact, it saves the film from really getting lost at sea. I write “saved” here because think for a moment how plain this button would be without a touch of fantasy.