The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Eric Roth (screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord; based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Stars: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy), Taraji P. Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline), Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button), Elias Koteas (Monsieur Gateau), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Jared Harris (Captain Mike)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonWhile the title would seem to suggest a story of relative modesty, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is anything but. Running nearly three hours in length and spanning some 80 years of American history, from World War I to Hurricane Katrina, it is an outsized romantic epic built on a potentially flimsy bit of fantastical whimsy that instead becomes an affecting allegory for the fleeting joys of life. The film’s title and central concept of a man aging backwards are drawn from a comical jazz-era story by F. Scott Fitzgerald that was inspired “by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” That, however, is where the similarities end.

In adapting the Fitzgerald story, screenwriter Eric Roth has essentially recycled his three-hanky, Oscar-winning approach to Forrest Gump (1994). All the important components are in place: We have a huge swath of American history viewed through the eyes of a unique protagonist who comes from the Deep South, a love story that contrasts the protagonist’s relative innocence with his true love’s defiant hedonism, and a rogue’s gallery of interesting supporting characters that in some way touch or change the protagonist’s life. It is certainly an effective approach to epic storytelling, and it allows the central conceit of Benjamin’s backward aging to take on a particularly poignant hue because it inherently isolates him amid the turmoil of history (although racial issues, which should have been central, are all but ignored). With the exception of a brief period when Benjamin and his true love are the same age physically and chronologically, at all other times he is progressing in his own alternate universe, a place in which mind and body are headed in opposite directions.

It is particularly intriguing that the film was directed by David Fincher, who is best known for dark, twisting, and deeply cynical films like Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and Zodiac (2007). It would seem that Fincher’s moody visual proclivities and fascination with the more disturbing impulses in human nature (particularly anger and obsession) would be in direct conflict with Roth’s rather mushy temperament, but in fact they intertwine quite harmoniously, turning Benjamin Button into a fascinating paradox when it could have been mere treacle. Fincher brings his darker sensibility to bear on the story’s inherent whimsy, which gives it a weight and heft it might have otherwise lacked.

The story opens in a hospital room where an aged woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies dying in her bed and asks her granddaughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from a diary written by the titular Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). Benjamin thus narrates most of his life, beginning in New Orleans on the night in 1918 that marked the end of World War I. Born as an infant with the physical appearance and the frailties of a man 80 years of age, Benjamin is deserted by his father (Jason Flemyng) after his mother dies in childbirth. He is left on the doorstep of a black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs a boarding house for the elderly. Since her heart is as large as her accent is thick, Queenie takes in the wrinkly baby, thinking that he will soon die. However, he does not die, but rather grows up like a normal child, albeit with the physical effects of aging running in reverse.

It is when he is a 12-year-old (who looks like a shrunken old man) that Benjamin first meets Daisy, and they strike up a friendship that will eventually develop into a romance in the years ahead. In the meantime, though, Benjamin goes through the travails of life, losing his virginity in a bawdy house of ill repute, learning the in’s and out’s of rugged manhood from a rascally Irish tugboat captain named Mike (Jared Harris), and seeing the world as part of the tugboat crew. During an extended stay in a Russian port he meets and falls in love with a married British woman (Tilda Swinton), who treats him to his first lesson in heartbreak. It won’t be the last, though, as he returns to woo Daisy, who is now an outgoing twentysomething ballet dancer more interested in casual sex and having fun than settling down into a significant romance, although it is clear that her youthful impulses will at some point fade against the pull of true love.

If the script is sometimes uneven and the dialogue a bit too self-consciously pithy, the underlying emotions in Benjamin Button keep it afloat. The film’s conceit of backward aging is deployed with both physical verisimilitude (the combination of digital and practical effects are simply amazing in their seamlessness) and thematic poignancy, which is most memorably captured when Benjamin and Daisy stand in front of a mirror together, a fleeting moment of togetherness that summarizes the film’s underlying preoccupation with the inherent transience of happiness. Pitt’s performance as Benjamin captures his character’s aloneness in the world, and if at times he seems like a bit of a blank slate, it is only because he is so fundamentally different, so radically out of synch with the natural processes that connect the rest of humanity. His trajectory is both fascinating in that it allows him to enjoy the benefits of life experience in a youthful body, but also sad in that he cannot share it with anyone (as he writes in his diary, “I will go out of this world the same way I came in--alone”). His happiness with Daisy can never last simply because they cannot age together, which is arguably the tie that binds lifelong love. He is destined to regress to infancy--his literal second childhood--and the scene in which the elderly Daisy cares for him in his final years have an especially bittersweet touch.

Whenever the film threatens to become too weighty for its own good, Fincher gives us a small surprise, such as an amusing recurring gag involving an elderly gent randomly mentioning one of the seven times he was struck by lightning (which are depicted via jerky silent-movie-era aesthetics). However, he fundamentally miscalculates the framing story, whose use of Hurricane Katrina as yet another milestone history marker (joining World Wars I and II, the launching of Apollo 11, and the Beatles performing on television) is both heavy-handed and ultimately meaningless. Yet, even with its missteps, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button maintains its intrigue as it elucidates, if only briefly, Robert Frost’s poetic proclamation that nothing gold can stay.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Criterion Collection Director-Approved 2-Disc Blu-Ray Set

Aspect Ratio2.40:1
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button four-part making-of documentary
  • Storyboard gallery
  • Art Direction gallery
  • Costumes gallery
  • Production Stills gallery
  • Two theatrical trailers
  • Essay by film critic Kent Jones
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Paramount Home Entertainment
    Release DateMay 5, 2009

    No big shock here: the Criterion branded Blu-Ray edition of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looks simply amazing. However, it is not because of a rigorous telecine transfer of the best possible elements because the film was shot almost entirely in the digital realm, thus the high-definition image on this disc is a direct digital port. The liner notes specify that the image was converted directly from the Digital Intermediate color space to SMPTE Rec. 709 24fps 1080p, and it looks fantastic (I haven’t seen it, but from what I have read, the Blu-Ray is apparently a significant improvement over the DVD). Like all of David Fincher’s films, Benjamin Button is a constant visual marvel, and the Blu-Ray brings out all the fine details of the film’s vast spectrum of locations and time periods, from the dusty golden hues of New Orleans in the afternoon, to the purposefully scratchy and grainy memories of the blind clockmaker, to the inky dark and highly contrasted night scenes. The film’s 5.1 surround soundtrack, which is presented in Dolby Digital, also sounds excellent after having been optimized for home theater listening by sound engineer Ren Klyce.
    Ever since Seven was offered on laser disc by the Criterion Collection back in 1996, David Fincher has proven to be one of the home video special edition’s greatest advocates. The production processes on each of his films have been relentlessly documented, leaving virtually no stone unturned, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no different, except that Fincher has somehow managed to get the film released with the Criterion banner, something I wish would happen more often with worthwhile studio-produced films (my slightly ambivalent feelings about this one were soothed by Kent Jones’ powerfully argued essay in the liner notes).

    Fincher contributes an informative and technically detailed audio commentary on the first disc (he also addresses a number of criticisms leveled at the film), while the second disc boasts a three-hour documentary titled The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button, which traces the film from its earliest conceptual stages in the 1990s to its premiere in New Orleans in December 2008. The documentary is actually composed of four shot documentaries: “First Trimester: Development and Preproduction,” “Second Trimester: Production,” “Third Trimester: Postproduction,” and “Birth: The Premiere.” These are then further divided into content-specific featurettes for ease of access, including some material that is not watchable using the “Play All” function (most notably 12 minutes of video footage of the production team scouting locations around New Orleans). All together, these featurettes form an engrossing and comprehensive accounting of this unique film’s production challenges, from the multiple drafts needed to adapt the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, to location scouting in New Orleans post-Katrina, to the difficulties involved in digitally creating Brad Pitt as an elderly child and the “youthenizing” him by 20 years. Along the way virtually everyone who played a major role in the film is interviewed, including Fincher, screenwriter Eric Roth, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, composer Alexandre Desplat, and actors Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, and Jason Flemyng, as well as a host of technical personnel. We are treated to extensive behind-the-scenes footage before, during, and after production, with some of the most fascinating material revolving around the complex digital effects. Also on the second disc are four extensive stills galleries (Storyboards, Art Direction, Costumes, and Production Stills) and two theatrical trailers.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection / Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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