Tybout: Inconsistent styles obscure film director

By Andy Tybout

Quick quiz: Have you heard of “Se7en?” How about “Fight Club?” How about the newly… Quick quiz: Have you heard of “Se7en?” How about “Fight Club?” How about the newly released “The Social Network?”

Now here’s a hard one: Have you heard of David Fincher?

Few directors in the past 10 years have been as critically and commercially successful as David Fincher, and yet his name only registers with those who zealously follow the film industry. Maybe this is because Fincher’s canon is as disparate as a Beck album, wholly lacking in a distinctive style or theme. Or maybe it’s because he’s an understated dude, forever absorbed in thought, who doesn’t draw attention to himself.

Whatever the case, the release of “The Social Network” merits a lesson in Fincher 101. Below I’ve compiled a list of the last four Fincher feature films, ranking them on a scale of mediocre to classic.

Mediocre: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) This film might find favor among those who felt “Forrest Gump” would be a perfect movie if it had less character development and more creepy CGI. I, however, found “Benjamin Button” to be as bland as oatmeal, a film too caught up in the novelty of a protagonist aging backwards to pay any attention to trivial concepts like character, pacing or original storytelling.

In fact, I would only recommend “Button” as a study in how films adapted from short stories — this one was originally a sketch by F. Scott Fitzgerald — sometimes embellish obtusely and needlessly to fill time requirements — see also, “The Grinch.”

Decent: “Panic Room” (2002) Unlike “Button,” “Panic Room” doesn’t suffer delusions of grandeur: This is a thriller, plain and simple, and a fairly good one at that. Jodie Foster, whose roster of impressive nail-biters is seemingly endless, plays a mother trapped in a safe room with her daughter as thieves ransack her house. Unfortunately for Jodie and company, the robbers want what’s in the “panic room.”

Fincher’s thriller is valuable not only in its impeccable sense of suspense, but also in its casting of two relative unknowns that later became household names: Forest Whitaker, whose captivating villainy as a robber is magnified tenfold in “The Last King of Scotland,” and Kristen Stewart, whose moody-daughter character seems a fitting precursor to the melodramatic Bella of “Twilight” fame.

Good: “Fight Club” (1999) The first rule of “Fight Club” is that you don’t quote “Fight Club” at every conceivable opportunity. I will, however, tolerate arguments that this is Fincher’s most original movie. At the very least, it’s his most iconic — if every film he made were as pulpy and visceral, it’s a safe bet he’d be a household name by now. Since then, however, he’s opted for calm, collected and competent filmmaking — three qualities that don’t exactly garner a cult following.

As for the movie itself, you won’t see it on my Facebook favorites. I’ve always fostered a suspicion that beneath all the frenzied filmmaking, all the suave Tyler Durden monologues and all the absurd twists, “Fight Club” was more bluster than substance.

At the same time, I’ll concede that it has an aesthetic and a character that lesser films can only attempt to emulate. Also, it contains one of the best understatements in history. At the end of the film — spoiler alert, of course — after Edward Norton shoots himself in the face to smite his alter ego, Tyler, and after he watches five skyscrapers blown to pieces at his very hand, he turns to his kidnapped girlfriend Marla and says, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”

Classic: “Zodiac” (2007) Fincher’s pre-“Button” masterpiece, “Zodiac,” is an epic of a different nature — a true-life, decades-long search for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer, with all the failures, complications and red herrings inherent in a real police investigation. Like all great mysteries, the audience is given the opportunity to play detective, preempting protagonists Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. in their obsessive game of puzzles. Be warned, however: People are killed, characters waste away and the murderer is never caught. But while the film ends in irresolution, the audience, I’m confident, will leave satisfied.

Of course, one of Fincher’s earliest films, “Se7en,” also merits “classic” status, and if reviews are to be believed, so does “The Social Network.” As for the latter, however, I’ll leave that for you to decide — my only wish is that when the movie ends, you’ll know it’s the work of an experienced, and expansive, cinematic mind.