Famed veterinarian Dr. Doolittle once studied a creature known as the pushmi-pullyu, a two-headed beast that faced two different directions and couldn't decide where it was going. Sometimes a film critic feels just the same about a film, and this curiosity comes once more to pass with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In most respects, the film plays like an expertly made but ultimately cynical grab for Oscars (though a viral video that made the rounds at Oscar time—noting the film's voluminous similarities to Oscar darling Forrest Gump—damaged Button's awards potential). After all, the name "Miss Daisy" is uttered within the first sixty seconds of the film. On the other hand, it is awfully well crafted by by director David Fincher, with masterful evocations of twentieth-century time and place, and a melancholy that at times transcends the limitations of its screenplay (Eric Roth, Oscar-winning screenwriter of—whaddya know?—Forrest Gump).
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button derives from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one criticism that can be leveled at the film is its near-abandonment of the story's goofy tone (the once-attached Spike Jonze would have stayed truer to that sensibility). But it's not necessarily a bad idea to take Fitzgerald's promising premise—about a man aging backwards—and try to make more of it than flimsy whimsy and one-joke satire. Fincher's approach results in a particularly high-toned Twilight Zone episode (though, at 165 minutes, it'd have to be at least a four-parter). Certainly, Fincher's epic is ambitious, especially in pushing the boundaries of make-up and special effects technology to follow medical miracle Benjamin Button from his eighties to his teens while allowing a single actor (Brad Pitt) credibly to play the character at all ages.
The story begins just hours before the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, in a New Orleans hospital. There, Daisy (Cate Blanchett, who also benefits from make-up and special effects to play the character from 6 to 86) lays dying, watched over by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond). Caroline discovers the journal of Benjamin Button—her mother's great love—and begins to read aloud his account of a most unusual life and love, of a couple aging in two different directions. Of course, Caroline's readings swiftly leap to visual life in lengthy flashbacks that illustrate Button's traumatic birth, his adoption by an African-American rest-home proprietress (Taraji P. Henson's Queenie), his world travels, his slow reconnection with his father (Jason Flemyng), and his intersections with Daisy. "We're meeting in the middle," Daisy remarks at the height of their physical perfection (it's one of the film's more puzzling themes that "None of us is perfect forever"—hey, we're not all Brad Pitt!).
Like Forrest Gump (but with a much lighter hand about it), the story touches certain cultural touchstones of a changing nation. Button is born the night the Great War ends, and grows up to participate in WWII. In Murmansk, Button dallies with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy, and in New York, he sees Daisy in the premiere production of Carousel. And in the affecting short-story prelude within this short-story adapatation, Teddy Roosevelt witnesses the unveiling of the latest creation of the blind clockmaker Gateau (Elias Koteas), whose grief over a son lost to the Great War spurs him to build a railway-station clock that runs backwards: like life itself, a Quixotic expression of hope against hope. The problem with the prelude is that it's so pithy as to make the other 155 minutes effectively redundant.
The film's most egregious quality—and what it has most in common with Gump—is Roth's constant goosing of the audience with fortune-cookie "wisdom." "You never know what's comin' for you," Queenie tells Benjamin. "You gotta do what you're meant to do," says this film's Lieutenant Dan: tugboat Captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris). "You never get it back. Wasted time," muses Swinton's Elizabeth Abbott. Button himself finally arrives at this conclusion: "Well, I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is." Statements like these should be used sparingly; Roth never learned the true spirit of the writer's lesson "Show, don't tell." What Roth heard: "Show a magic hummingbird as a symbol of life's wonder, but not before giving a character a one-page speech about it."
But I digress. Despite its failings and frustrations, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a solid film about the most elemental struggle of our existence: the unstoppable march of time. Fincher and Roth turn it into something of a soggy romance, but one that pays off in one of those improbably soul-clutching moments that used to make people cry at telephone commercials: the sight of Daisy holding the hand of the man she loves, but in the "curious" way made possible by Fitzgerald. Despite a strong performance, literally "of a lifetime," Pitt's own personality isn't fascinating enough to imbue the passive Button with added shading, a problem that contributes to the film's static moodiness. Still, with fine acting all around, and Fincher's typically meticulous filmmaking engagingly, if coldly, transportive above and beyond Roth's mediocre script, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button bears examining.
Regardless of one's feelings about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, its release by Criterion is cause for celebration, as it signals an ongoing partnership with filmmaker David Fincher. Since the bonus features are produced by out-of-house DVD producer David Prior (one of the very best in the biz, by the way), there's little about this release that has a distinctive Criterion stamp (basically, that'd be the Criterion logo and liner notes by film critic Kent Jones). Still, it's a nice advertisement for the ever-worthwhile Criterion brand and its stable of new and old historic films.
The release comes in mirrored two-disc Blu-ray and DVD editions. The Blu-ray offers a spectacular hi-def master "converted directly from the Digital Intermediate" source. Completed by a DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround mix "optimized...for home-video listening," the A/V presentation is flawless. Disc One comes with a typically detailed "film school on a disc" audio commentary by director David Fincher.
Disc Two is packed with hours of bonus footage. The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button is a comprehensive and utterly fascinating behind-the-scenes suite consisting primarily of a three-hour making-of documentary produced and directed by Prior. It can be viewed with a "Play Most" feature, or explored in sections. First Trimester includes “Preface” (3:08, HD), “Development and Pre-Production” (28:56, HD), “Tech Scouts” (12:22, HD), Storyboard Gallery and Art Direction Gallery. Second Trimester includes “Production Part 1” (26:15, HD), “Production Part 2” (29:03, HD), “Costume Design” (7:38, HD) and Costume Gallery. Third Trimester includes “Visual Effects: Performance Capture” (7:43, HD), “Visual Effects: Benjamin” (16:55, HD), “Visual Effects: Youthenization” (6:21, HD), “Visual Effects: The Chelsea” (8:48, HD), “Visual Effects: The Simulated World” (12:52, HD), “Sound Design” (16:06, HD), and “Desplat’s Instrumentarium” (14:53, HD). Birth includes “Premiere” (4:20, HD) and Production Stills.
The behind-the-scenes location and post-production footage is priceless, and the interviews offer surprising depth. Participants include Fincher, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, former Universal executive Josh Donen, screenwriter Eric Roth, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, location manager William Doyle, production manager Donald Graham Burt, associate producer/production controller Jim Davidson, set decorator Victor J. Zolfo, Taraji P. Henson, first assistant director Bob Wagner, special effects coordinator Burt Dalton, Jason Flemyng, special makeup effects Greg Cannom, director of photography Claudio Miranda, post-production supervisor Peter Mavromates, Jared Harris, Julia Ormond, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Rampai Mohadi, costume designer Jacqueline West, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, visual effects supervisor (Digital Domain) Eric Barba, character supervisor (Digital Domain) Steve Preeg, compositing supervisors (Digital Domain) Paul Lambert & Janelle Croshaw, lighting supervisor (Digital Domain) Jonathan Litt, 3D integration supervisor (Digital Domain) Marco Maldonado, lead technical developer Tadao Mihashi, visual effects designer (Hydraulx) Greg Strause, visual effects supervisor (Lola) Edson Williams, visual effects supervisor (Asylum) Nathan McGuiness, additional visual effects supervisor (Asylum) Jason Schugardt, visual effects supervisor (MatteWorld) Craig Barron, sound designer Ren Klyce, and composer Alexandre Desplat.
That list should give a sense of how comprehensive a special edition Criterion has in store for you, rounded out with a “Trailer 1” (1:49, HD), “Trailer 2” (2:42, HD). For fans of the film, this is a no-brainer, and others should at least give these discs a rental spin. The story of the film's tortured development and eventual making is at least as fascinating as the finished product!
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