David Fincher and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) have delivered an historic achievement, a masterful piece of cinema, and a moving treatise on death, loss, loneliness and love. As the movie proceeds, and Brad Pitt as Button ages backwards, we know where he is headed: it's where we are all going. But he feels he has to go there by himself, without his loved ones. And nobody wants to die alone. (Here is Todd McCarthy's review.)
So when the movie reaches its climax, it is extraordinarily moving (although some find the movie cold and dispassionate). It may pack a more powerful punch the older you are and the more people you have lost. In that case it will score with the Academy, who will also recognize the skillful filmmaking on display.
The movie marks a seismic shift in terms of what is possible in moviemaking. What Fincher and his team have done is no small technological feat. Button starts off as a CG-aged baby, moves through CG-altered older Pitt faces superimposed on small bodies, and then proceeds to the "real" Pitt wearing makeup and then getting younger and younger. Thus the film's central performance is in great part a visual effect. (Blanchett is also made younger digitally, but aged with makeup.) That accounts in part for the movie's high cost (well above $150 million) but is also its primary limitation.
Thus, while I admire the film's amazing accomplishment--it's hard to imagine that anyone but the digitally sophisticated Fincher, who has become adept at "painting" his digital canvases, could have pulled this off--the movie is not entirely satisfying. But given what it is, it's hard to imagine it being done done any better. The actors are superb, especially Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who should earn Oscar noms. What's missing has partly to do with the limitations of the technology. Button reminds me of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in Being There. He's oddly passive and restrained, zen-like as he floats through all the decades, watching, listening, learning. He narrates the tale via his diary, along with his dying love Blanchett. We see him engaging with people, but he never says much. We see him from the outside; we never get under his skin, and we never learn the fruits of his wisdom. He stays much the same.
Still, the movie is sadly beautiful, of a piece, as impeccably wrought as its ornate clock that runs counterclockwise. Do Paramount and Warner Bros. have a prayer of making their money back? This movie needs all the help it can get, from anyone who loves movies and wants the studios to take more risky bets like this one.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]