The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Review
David Fincher may have delusions of grandeur. Or at least ambitions of grandeur. He makes films that are often long, ambitious in scope without reaching the point of ridiculousness, and reveling in complications. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick and his tedious attention to detail are, I'd imagine, entirely welcomed. There's no Paths of Glory on Fincher's resume, though. No The Killing. Certainly no Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick, for all of his eventual descent into the unchecked shooting of a grotesque amount of film, proved himself able to churn out a brilliant picture that ran about an hour and a half. I'm afraid Fincher seems incapable of doing this, which is sort of a weird malady for someone who cut his teeth on music videos. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Fincher's longest yet at 165 minutes, and it would have benefited from an increased focus via a shortening of the story. The release version, and with Fincher you can't help but wonder whether a new edit will someday come along, uses a fascinating premise to gradually establish diminished returns. At no point does the movie actually improve on what we'd seen earlier. Each chapter unfolds with less and less sense of purpose before finally imbuing the audience with the banal premise that everyone eventually dies regardless of where their life has taken them.
It's mildly humorous in a sharp, cynical way to view the first part of the excellent making-of documentary on disc two of this release where the long, arduous pre-production of Benjamin Button is discussed. There's a good detailing of how difficult the path to making this movie became after Frank Oz and Martin Short were initially attached back in the '80s. A script was later written by Robin Swicord, and she even shares a story credit here with Eric Roth who'd eventually write the Oscar-nominated screenplay on which the film was based. This is all bullshit-meter funny because the sole common denominator throughout is F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the same name, and the film actually resembles it in premise only. There's absolutely nothing retained from Fitzgerald's story aside from the title and the idea of a child born an old man who then ages in reverse. There's no quasi-adoption by the kind black lady, no New Orleans, no pining for a red-haired girl named Daisy, and certainly no inane framing device needlessly centered on Hurricane Katrina. The participants in that documentary and the essay included with this release all agree that Fitzgerald's story was just lacking something, that it had no conflict or was a "wisp of a story."
That's sort of the point, though, isn't it? Fitzgerald got his message across in a couple dozen pages or so, depending on the edition. Here we have a bloated film that runs two and three-quarters hours and I still feel like it's the short story that makes the greater impact. As with Roth's similar adaptation of Forrest Gump, there's little use in comparisons to the source material because no reverence whatsoever has been employed, a fine enough approach but one that remains odd when examined in light of the apparently fervent desire to bring Fitzgerald's story to the screen. I can't be sure whether it's Swicord or Roth who was responsible for the first real scene, after the excruciatingly distasteful use of Cate Blanchett's aged Daisy in a hospital room as her daughter (Julia Ormond) tries to connect with her in the last moments of life at the very instant Katrina looms, but there's nothing else in the entirety of the film that exudes as much confidence in storytelling and command of the medium as our introduction to the blind clockmaker who builds a large timepiece for the train station that, to the disappointment of all gathered, runs backwards. There's genuine poignancy here. The little bit, a prologue of sorts, doesn't really concern the remainder of the story, and probably has no actual justification for being there, but it nonetheless captures a tone of near-whimsy, reminiscent of the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, otherwise mostly abandoned in the film.
That isn't to say a more Jeunet-like approach would have been an improvement over the existing version. It could've easily been grating in such large doses. Likewise, the flattened-out, chronologically slavish method used might have conceivably worked better had the path drawn been given to emotion more than technological wizardry and montage. The effects are indeed awe-inspiring, but I couldn't help thinking they seemed to take precedent over grounding the film in something more tangible. Aside from the Spielbergian hospital deathbed scenes (which I really can't disparage enough), the main flaws of the movie are an execution lacking in focus and a collection of characters who are never sufficiently humanized. Like Gump, Benjamin simply meanders through life as others place much more emphasis on his unusual condition than he does. There's a time line used for Benjamin's various changes in appearance, but he's hardly the main character at any point in his own story. He narrates without giving insight into his thoughts other than an irrational, unsupported affinity for Daisy. He's just a presence whose story is given such emphasis for the amount of living he does when little of it actually registers. Gump was at least a cipher without any expected depth. Benjamin's even lighter sense of identity is more problematic because he ideally should have some peek into the human condition apart from merely realizing things are constantly in a state of flux.
On the making-of documentary, Fincher mentions an early conversation he had with Brad Pitt about the script where the actor was asking whether the film was a love story and the director responded that he really saw it more as a "death story." An interesting concept, to be sure. It's something to consider amid the constant references to aging and time, and the tragedy of Benjamin's perpetual inability to experience true life in either himself or anyone else. From his condition and the company he keeps, the character can't find the compromise that would allow him to witness the normal aging process. I think the film generally fails to make effective use of the overlying premise it's aiming for, instead getting bogged down in the insistence on bringing Benjamin and Daisy together before predictably stripping them apart. Had Daisy been a character of more dimension or interest, or maybe if she hadn't been given the same first name as Fitzgerald's most famous female creation, the film's determination on setting up a counterpart to Benjamin might've resonated. The more interesting female character, Tilda Swinton's adulterous Elizabeth Abbott, is quickly abandoned without sufficient exploration.
Somewhat lost amid this sometimes brilliant but too often overly in love with the forest more than the essential trees, is a terrific and affecting performance from Pitt. I know the actor played portions of the role with the great help of someone else's body and lots of computer magic, but it all appears seamless enough (and no more artificial than the rest of the film) that the starting points of voice and facial expressions Pitt contributed shouldn't be discounted. The endearing figure of Benjamin in the earlier stages of his life, when he's assembled by people on computers in postproduction, actually makes a bigger, more compelling impact than the youthful and movie star handsome Pitt-like version later in the film. By that point, it seems to be a full-on coast through the murky waters of a relationship, an area Fincher still doesn't have a clue how to handle on film. I started to feel a little twinge of emotion and false regret as the ending played out, but I immediately questioned why, knowing full well the movie hadn't earned any empathy. Soon enough the realization hit me that I'd been trained for this response. It was almost Pavlovian. Long movies with doomed lovers and heavy-hearted scores always try to elicit this reaction. It was a confirmation that, despite the marvelous technical effects and novel premise, the film is so utterly ordinary as to render much of its achievement moot.
Here's an odd one: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been released by Paramount but with branding from the Criterion Collection. The result is a weird hybrid of a release between the two companies. Criterion's usual cover art template, menus, the small booklet inside the case, and the disc art are all consistent with a normal release from that label. The standard, blue-colored Blu-ray case and some of the copyright notice and ratings information speed bumps after starting up the discs seem to have been more Paramount's doing. A slipcover (with big blue director-approved sticker attached in the middle) allows for some shelf consistency with Criterion's earlier high definition titles. This release is also playable only in Region A machines. Folks with Region B players can probably look forward to the same bonus material on the upcoming UK edition.
The very wide 2.40:1 image looks magnificent here. Indeed, the dual-layered Blu-ray disc containing the feature is filled nearly to capacity. The image is pristine. This is a film shot digitally on the Viper camera so I suppose it should look virtually perfect and it basically does. I've seen sharper detail but the actual handling of movement and color shades is unimpeachable. In some instances, the quality may be too good since the digitally inserted head of little-old Benjamin can occasionally seem a bit unnatural. Many of these scenes look intentionally dark to further mask the effect. The entire movie really utilizes unnatural lighting and colors, sometimes taking on an almost sepia tone while using an antiquated look at others. Throughout, it's not a particularly brightly-lit picture, but the Blu-ray handles it all beautifully.
Audio is also extremely clear and full. The English 5.1 DTS-HD track makes every sound and piece of music connect crisply with the listener. Alexandre Desplat's score does go too heavy in my view, something he mentions in one featurette about hoping to avoid, but the audio track allows it to reach maximum levels of schmaltz. The only small misgiving I found with hearing the dialogue was the occasional thick, somewhat poorly enunciated accents and attempts at accents. I turned the subtitles on to avoid straining to recognize stray words. Both English and English for the hearing impaired options are provided, as are subtitles for French and Spanish, all white in color. The rare dub tracks for a Criterion release are here too (almost certainly on Paramount's insistence), with Dolby Digital 5.1 offerings in French and Spanish.
David Fincher's commentary is the only piece of bonus material included on disc one. I'd guess people who enjoy Fincher's other tracks will similarly get a kick out of this one. He talks throughout the film and has a real purpose in what he's saying instead of merely reminiscing about this or that positive moment on the set. He also comes across as arrogant and at times defensive, even declaring to those who'd take pause at Benjamin and young Daisy sitting together in their fort that the visual age difference is "the fucking point" of the scene. Some listeners will nonetheless applaud his directness. My only thought worth sharing is that I'd rather hear a commentary by someone saying interesting things and filling out the track rather than sitting though an unprepared outing with frequent dead air. If you're going to do a commentary and put it on the disc, making sure you actually have something of interest to say seems like the first priority. Fincher enthusiastically passes that test.
The remainder of the supplements can be found on disc two, all of which are in HD. The real heart of these is entitled "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button" and runs nearly three hours in length, ten minutes longer than the film. It's broken up into multiple parts - three trimesters and the birth - in the menu but can also be played all together. There are two video featurettes found within the menu options that are not included when "play all" is utilized. The "Tech Scouts" (12:22) and "Costume Design" (7:37) featurettes focus more on specific tasks and don't really fit in with the main documentary, but they're also well worth watching. A few stills galleries (Storyboard, Art Direction, Costume, Production) can be found mixed in here as well, though they're also viewable under a separate menu option. A pair of trailers (1:49 & 2:42) round out the disc, with a 3-page, laudatory essay by Kent Jones.
Special attention should be given to the massive "Curious Birth" documentary. It's divided into a dozen separate parts in all, covering pre-production, filming, and the intensive post-production in addition to about four minutes' worth of footage from the December 1st New Orleans premiere screening. David Prior, who has also worked on the DVD releases for Fincher's other films, was apparently the guiding force behind it all. This is absolutely the archetype of how to detail such a massive making-of and it's so well done as to be a significant incentive for considering the set regardless of how lukewarm you might be on the film. Most every major contributor to the film is interviewed and it's all edited together carefully. There are no extraneous bits or unnecessary clips shown without reason. The entirety of what's included is there for a reason, organized with complete efficiency. It's entertaining, informative and absolutely does not drag for a second. Each featurette of the documentary whole is almost equally worthwhile.
Here's the exact breakdown of "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button," with asterisks by those parts not included when the "play all" function is used:
1st Trimester - Preface (3:08), Development and Pre-Production (28:56), Tech Scouts* (12:22), Storyboard Gallery* (approximately 220 stills), Art Direction Gallery* (approx. 50 stills)
2nd Trimester - Production: Part 1 (26:14), Production: Part 2 (29:03), Costume Design* (7:37), Costume Gallery* (approx. 25 stills)
3rd Trimester - Visual Effects: Performance Capture (7:43), Visual Effects: Benjamin (16:55), Visual Effects: Youthenization (6:21), Visual Effects: The Chelsea (8:48), Visual Effects: The Simulated World (12:52), Sound Design (16:06), Desplat's Instrumentarium (14:53)
Birth - Premiere (4:20), Production Stills* (approx. 122 stills)
Brimming with brilliance everywhere except the actual film, this release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages to be nothing if not definitive. The involvement of the Criterion Collection may be a mystery, but there's little doubt that the overall package at least stands comfortably next to other titles with which the company's been more directly involved.