“Your life is defined by its opportunities… even the ones you miss.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those great American writers from the classic age. In school most of us were required to read various works from the writer. For many students those works included The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. The original work is a mere 20 page short story. For the last 15 years Hollywood has made one attempt or another to bring the classic story to the screen. The closest anyone got was Ron Howard who expected to bring in John Travolta as Benjamin Button. The one reason or another these attempts never made it past screenplay drafts. Along comes one of the best and most diverse directors, David Fincher. Fincher’s work needs little introduction and spans the genre spectrum from Se7en to Fight Club. The original short story would be adapted by Eric Roth. That left many, myself included, to expect a remake of Forrest Gump. When you consider that Roth wrote both screen adaptations and that he was once again working with a character spanning many years of history, the concerns were not unfounded. Would Roth take Benjamin Button on a journey through the 20th Century that would find him present at crucial moments in history as he did with Gump? Fortunately, Roth resisted such temptations and delivered a story relatively faithful to the original work, where the main character was a silent witness only to the major events of his life. Of course, I say relatively faithful because Roth also turned that 20 page story into an epic 3 hour film.
Benjamin Button (Pitt) has a rather remarkable condition. He is born in a body that exhibits all the trappings and physical resemblances to an 80 year old man. His mother dies in childbirth, and his father takes the child running through the streets in terror, abandoning him at an old folks’ institution. There the young caretaker, Queenie (Henson) takes pity on the poor creature and attempts to give what she believes to be only days of life, some comfort. But, young Benjamin doesn’t die. In fact, his condition improves day by day, year by year. Soon it becomes evident to even Benjamin himself that he is aging backwards. As he grows “older” he begins to gain the vitality of a man in his prime and sets off to find his own way in the world. He signs onto a tugboat, where he befriends its captain, Captain Mike (Harris). Together they share the adventures of the time between the wars, eventually being called to duty to serve in World War II. He finds his first love in a lonely married woman at a hotel in Russia. Eventually he returns to New Orleans to find his “true” love, a woman he met when she was ten years old, Daisy (Blanchett). By this time they are passing in the middle of their lives, and for a brief moment are the same physical age. Of course, Benjamin continues to grow younger while Daisy grows older. Eventually he fathers a child, but abandons the family under the guise of protecting them from dealing with him as a child. The pair find themselves together at last as the now old woman cares for the infant Benjamin, both finally dying. The tale is told as excerpts from Benjamin’s dairy, read by his daughter to Daisy on her own deathbed as Hurricane Katrina is about to strike them in New Orleans.
At 3 hours, this film says surprisingly little. There is never any kind of a plot or even theme that holds this together. It’s not even a character study, when you get down to it. Brad Pitt plays the character in rather subtle deadpan moments that strip any real emotion from the process. To say that Pitt is playing Benjamin Button would not be entirely correct. It is Benjamin Button who is playing Brad Pitt. What do I mean by that? Simply, that it is the remarkable combination of makeup and digital effects that bring the character to life at all. No question, these technical achievements are quite impressive and add a sense of realism, perhaps not seen before on this kind of effect. The problem is, the film takes realism too far. In real life most of our lives are pretty simple and boring. Except for his “curious” condition, Button is also a rather boring and unremarkable man. While much of the film is supposed to be a love story, Button walks away from the people and places he loves with tremendous ease and lack of emotion. His reason for leaving his family is that he doesn’t wish to burden Daisy with two children and no father. He says his daughter needs a father, not a playmate. But Benjamin has decades of vitality remaining and could have easily provided a father to his daughter at least into early adulthood. And in the end, Daisy ends up caring for him as a child anyway. Through brilliant digital effects we are brought convincingly into these eras, but the main character doesn’t share the awe or even the awareness of the times and places he finds himself. It’s all rather matter of fact, and as a matter of fact, that just doesn’t cut it for 3 hours. Fincher manages to wow us, but he never wins us over.
The supporting cast is a pretty good one. Cate Blanchett does a far superior job at displaying an emotional character through the various age transformations. While her makeup effects aren’t quite as splendid as Pitt’s, she does far more with the role. Taraji P. Henson also works well at various stages of her character’s life. She’s quite likely the true heart and center of the film and deserves some recognition, which she won’t get. The effects and big names will eclipse her in most conversations, but this reviewer finds her to be the most outstanding performance in the film. The next best has to go to Jared Harris as Captain Mike. He’s one of the most animated characters in the film, leaving you wishing there had been more encounters like this for Benjamin.
Fincher is a leading disciple of the Digital Revolution. Just about all of this movie was recorded digitally with most of it not seeing a film print until the actual theaters. There is no question that the images are at times breathtaking, but I didn’t feel like the image was alive at any given time. Between the almost sterile image and the monotone performance of the film’s star, I was always reminded just how created this world was. I think Fincher might have done a disservice to his amazing effects by insisting on such a static medium. There are films that benefit from this kind of production, and digital filmmaking is here to stay. I freely acknowledge those realities. But, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button accentuates the point that there is still room for film in filmmaking.
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The film is presented in full 1080p through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. Since the film was shot almost entirely in the digital medium, you would expect a pretty phenomenal image here. You do get a very sharp and detailed image. Black levels are only slightly better than average. The high definition image makes the aging effects that much more of a marvel. They hold up well under such intense detail. However, the picture does have a tendency to go soft on the colors and even the focus too often. It all looks so surreal that the image keeps you from ever fully entering into this world. And that’s too bad, because this is exactly the kind of movie that begs to be experienced. Absent a real story or theme, the film invites you into its what-if scenario and tempts you to live Button’s life vicariously. You know that’s the intent because of the tremendous care that went into the production. Alas, a kingdom was lost for the want of a sprocket. There is an odd occurrence near the end of the film. Black vertical lines appear in the image. Since this is digital I can’t really blame it on a flaw in the print. I can only assume it was intentional, but I can’t imagine why.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is far more immersive than the image. The lossless sound is as close to perfection as you could ask. Surrounds are used more for effect than ambients. You get a fine sense of direction with almost everything you hear. Dialog is included in this and is also perfectly placed and easy to hear. The subtle Alexandre Desplat score is often invisible, which is exactly where it should be. The subs aren’t put to a lot of their paces, but the sound is quite full and dynamic.
There is an Audio Commentary by David Fincher. It’s a pretty no frills straightforward track, but it is informative.
This is a Criterion 2 disc treatment. The first disc contains the film and commentary.
Disc Two contains a 3 hour documentary.
The problem with the feature is the way it is presented, not with the content. This thing is loaded with everything you could want in a making of feature. Unfortunately you can use the play all feature only if you’re willing to miss out on some content. The feature is broken down into 4 parts. Three of the 4 claim that there is additional material not seen if you use the play all option. Each of these 4 parts are also broken down into 3-6 parts. Again, we’re told that many contain material not available in play all. This means that if you want to see it all, you have to enter a response something like 21 times during the 3+ hours of material. It just wasn’t worth it to me. I watched through play all, so can not tell you what was missing. I just wasn’t about to watch it twice and try to figure out what is added. Sorry!
The movie was released on Christmas Day, 2008. You would have expected it to be a top grossing film. With $150 million budget it brought in a disappointing $127 million in domestic box office. It did far better in foreign release, eventually breaking $200 million in those markets. Still, the film was considered a disappointment, likely for the reasons I already covered. I do suspect the film will work better as a video release. The expectations are now somewhat lower, and its flaws play out better on a television screen. It’s a better than average film, but only slightly. It’s the Stephen King Syndrome in reverse. Usually the dilemma is, how do you cram 3000 pages into 2 hours. Here it was a matter of making 20 pages last for 3 hours. The running time was a self inflicted wound. This could have been a very impressive 90 minute movie. At home the film and its cast of unique characters have a better chance to leave their mark. “Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.”