Release Date: May 5, 2009
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton
Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzerald
Screenplay by Eric Roth Based on earlier drafts by Robin Swicord
Directed by: David Fincher
I’m going to take a slight detour before properly beginning the review of this title, as it affected me in ways I did not anticipate. A little over 20 years ago, I saw an episode of the late, great television series St. Elsewhere called “Weigh in, Way Out”. It was an interesting concept for a medical drama, in that it covered the complete cycle of life in four acts. The first act was a baby being born, as presented in a delivery room scene. The second act was one doctor’s last immature act before turning 30 (a great bit between Howie Mandel and Ronny Cox), and the third act was a man in his 50s dealing with life issues in a boxing ring. But the key was the fourth and final act, which dealt with an elderly man dying in his hospital bed. When the final moment of the episode came, the dying man (played quite well by the late Charles Lane) had an unusual request. He said “I’d like to be held. It’d be so much easier if I were held.” And he added “Rock me, then, like a baby”. The sight of the man being picked up and cradled was both emotional and thematically satisfying. And many of the same resonances carry forward in the current film at hand. As we pass into advanced age, do we in fact revert to a more childlike state? Do we in fact enter a second infancy of a sort? As one character in this film says, "In the end, we all wind up in diapers."
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not the film I was expecting – it’s something both deeper and more disquieting. On its surface, it simply tells the story of “the man who was born as an old man and grew younger.” As Benjamin’s journey goes on, it intersects with that of Daisy, the woman with whom he will have the most significant relationship in his life. A kaleidoscope of the last 100 years, the story ranges from the first World War to the approach of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. For both logistical and dramatic reasons, the story has been shifted from Fitzgerald’s Baltimore setting to New Orleans, which allows for some beautiful location work and a thematic resolution as the floods of Katrina wash away the past. As noted in the essay by Kent Jones included in the packaging, another director could have made a very simple film out of these ingredients – one with a lot of emotion, or a historical travelogue akin to Forrest Gump. But that’s not the film that David Fincher and writer Eric Roth have fashioned. Both of them have much darker intentions here. Both men have brought the experiences of watching the passing of their fathers to this table – Roth in particular brings the issues of dealing with dementia and senility into play. Fincher, if anything, is musing about the inevitability of death. And this is certainly a film with a lot of pictorial darkness – many scenes take place in darkened rooms or outside at night. A naval combat sequence is played in the black of night, with the gunfire and explosions only briefly illuminating people and faces. (It’s no accident that a book about Fincher’s work is called Dark Eye.) The film has a deliberate pace – it never hurries through its various acts, and it takes its time to come to its conclusions. (Many reactions to the film have been to say that it was too long by far.) Fincher also does not indulge the viewer in emotional displays or manipulation – if anything, he distances the viewer at every opportunity. While he clearly has affection for these characters, he does not indulge the viewer’s wish to completely empathize with Benjamin or Daisy. This can be frustrating, but it allows the viewer to keep a clear eye on the story as it unfolds, rather than getting caught up in the emotions of one scene or another. Fincher’s one indulgence is to occasionally give in to the whimsy of Fitzgerald’s original story – specifically to have fun with the repeated iterations of one character’s unfortunate history with lightning strikes. And as with other Fincher movies that work well (Seven and Zodiac), there’s a kind of thematic synergy that holds everything together and provides a satisfaction not found in the work of more mainstream filmmakers. Viewers hoping for a more traditional approach probably will find their patience tested to the breaking point. But fans of David Fincher (not to mention fans of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) will find many rewards here. (I should also mention that Tilda Swinton turns in a beautiful cameo here – and even that character winds up having thematic resonance that you wouldn’t expect.) And just when the viewer might think or feel that Fincher is being too cold about the matters here, he provides an unexpected valentine that left this reviewer reeling.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been released simultaneously by Paramount Home Video (with the Criterion Collection) on standard definition and Blu-ray. The standard definition 2-Disc edition under review here includes a commentary by David Fincher on the first disc, and then a significant “making-of” documentary on the second disc along with some photo and art galleries and a a pair of trailers. For fans of Fincher, the film, or both, there is plenty of interesting material here.
VIDEO QUALITY: 3/5
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is presented in an anamorphic 2.40:1 transfer that tends toward the darker parts of the spectrum, as is appropriate for Fincher’s perspective. Different sections of the film have different lighting palettes, from the more sepia-toned early moments to the cold blue of the Katrina-era framing scenes. Flesh tones obviously are affected a bit by the tone of the eras in which they are found, but they appear accurate throughout. Given that much of the film includes various kinds of digital effects, from the various historical backdrops to the presentation of the title character at various ages, the seams don’t show here. This is a fine transfer.
AUDIO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English, French and Spanish. Much of the mix lives in the front channels, but there is a fair amount of music and atmospheric effects that find their way out to the rear channels. The subwoofer comes to life repeatedly in interesting and surprising ways – most disturbingly with a bass purr as Benjamin and Daisy watch a telecast of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. (That’s not a criticism of the mix – it’s an observation of how Fincher infuses even the more innocent scenes with a hint of anxiety...)
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3 ½ /5 ½
The special features included here are enough to occupy both of the two discs in this edition.
On the first disc, we find the film itself, and one special feature of significance:
Feature Commentary with Director David Fincher - This scene-specific commentary finds Fincher sharing much of his feelings and perspective both about the story he’s telling and about what it took to get it on screen. Near the close of the commentary, he directly addresses some of the criticisms made of his choices, with what may or may not be a pleasant reproach to those people who wish he had handled the film in a different way. He also explains in matter-of-fact detail why certain scenes were not handled with as much CGI or visual magic as others (in simple language, they didn’t have enough money – even with a budget as big as this one was...). A separate index is available for this commentary, and can be found via the Commentary menu on the first disc.
Moving on to Disc 2, we find the bulk of the special features:
The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button (2:55:25, Anamorphic) – What we have here is a full-length documentary about the creation and production of this film, broken into multiple parts, none of which run any longer than 30 minutes for the usual reason. The documentary can be watched by choosing the “Play All” function, which is the most effective way to go, but it will not actually include “All” of the material, as two featurettes must be viewed separately, along with several galleries. As for the documentary itself, it is broken into four parts, “First Trimester” (read: Development and Script), “Second Trimester” (read: Production), “Third Trimester” (read: Post-Production) and “Birth” (read: Release). Each section holds its own rewards, particularly the first section, which details the agonizingly long time it took anyone to decide to make this film. A timeline is shown, marking off the dates of the various drafts and the revolving door of directors and actors attached to the project at different times. The Production sections are also interesting, although one can tell that the viewer is being carefully shown only the more positive aspects of what was happening. (Making this film was clearly a bit more difficult than is being shown, and only a few hints of this make their way into the documentary.) The Post-Production section includes a generous amount of material and on-set footage of the CGI work done to morph Brad Pitt onto the bodies of the men playing him at various ages. And the final section is a valentine to New Orleans and to the people who made this film, with writer Eric Roth openly declaring his appreciation for the piece.
Separate from the “Play All” function, there are two more featurettes:
Tech Scouts (12:23, Anamorphic) – Found within the “First Trimester” menu of the documentary, this piece is essentially a collection of video footage of the various location scouts conducted by Fincher with his first assistant director to show the department heads exactly what he intended to see when the cast and crew got to each setting. (The “First Trimester” section also includes galleries for “Storyboards” and “Art Direction”.)
Costume Design (7:38, Anamorphic) – Found within the “Second Trimester” menu, this piece covers the wardrobe designs used for the film, including an interview with the designer and plenty of clips to show the work. (The “Second Trimester” section also includes a gallery for “Costumes”.)
The fourth section, “Birth” also includes a gallery for “Production Stills”
Galleries (Anamorphic) – This section provides another access point to view the galleries included in the documentary menus. This can be a little confusing, as the viewer may be lulled into thinking that everything can be seen by using the “Play All” function and then looking through the galleries, when in fact, there are those other two featurettes lurking in the menus...
Trailers (1:52 and 2:45, Anamorphic) – Both theatrical trailers for the film can be found in this section, presented in anamorphic format and full 5.1 sound. They tend to SPOIL THE PLOT OF THE MOVIE, but they are also beautiful to watch. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND ANYONE NOT HAVING SEEN THE FILM WAIT TO WATCH THESE...)
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the special features. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference for the feature, and as noted, there is a separate chapter menu for Fincher’s commentary.
IN THE END...
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful film that reveals its treasures to those who have the patience to stay with it for the whole journey. It’s far more than a simple love story or a quick pass through history. This film touches on deeper and darker subjects, albeit with a gentleness that masks the rawness of the nerves being exposed. Fans of David Fincher will be very happy to see another wonderful DVD edition of one of his films (and in the first edition, no less!). Fans of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (as well as those of Tilda Swinton) will enjoy their performances here. And it is my belief that a few years down the road, this film will be looked back upon as a high point of David Fincher’s career. I have no hesitation about recommending this film for purchase.
May 10, 2009.