Liberally adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1921 short story, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) offers a detailed look at a rather remarkable life. Our protagonist is Benjamin Button himself (Brad Pitt), who was born as an old man and gradually begins to age in reverse. Before a sobering introduction about a clockmaker who constructs a backwards clock to commemorate his son's sacrifice during World War I, we're introduced to Daisy Fuller (Cate Blanchett). She's now an old woman in a Louisiana nursing home, visited by her daughter as Hurricane Katrina begins its fateful approach towards the city. This creates an appropriate backdrop for such a mournful, introspective story, which is told in segments as Fuller's condition worsens. The daughter is reading from Benjamin's diary, exactly as he remembers his life.
Aside from these modern sequences, our story is told in a linear fashion...which takes some getting used to, considering Button's unusual state. Abandoned by his father Thomas (Jason Flemyng) at the end of WWI and raised by a kind woman in a local nursing home, the infant appears to have the body and health of an 85-year old. Determined to raise this miracle child, the woman, "Queenie" (Taraji Henson), showers him with love and support. He's soon able to walk without crutches or a wheelchair---and before long, he's off on his own. The elderly Button experiences life one day at a time, developing unusual relationships due to his atypical appearance. Perhaps the most lasting is with young Daisy, who first meets him as a young girl and return to his life sporadically as the years pass. Through wars, accomplishments, loss and love interests, Button grows younger but still experiences life as it drifts by. It's an irresistible premise, to say the least.
Unfortunately, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is a good 40 minutes too long. The linear progression of Button's backward life is often told in great detail (much like Forrest Gump, whose screenplay was also written by Roth), yet many details don't really pay off in any real sense. Benjamin Button's feel-good coda, which presents some of the film's major players and what they taught our title character, offers a perfect example of this. It's as if this fortune-cookie summary was dreamed up first, but the actual meat of the story was just an afterthought. Entire segments fail to advance the story in any real manner, though they do make Button's age regression feel slightly less jarring. Unlike Fincher's previous effort, Zodiac, Benjamin Button often drags its heels toward the finish line.
The Forrest Gump similarities are another hindrance; I'm typically not opposed to the repetition of themes and story elements, but it's practically a carbon copy in more ways than one. The young boy's difficult Southern upbringing, an unusual affliction from birth, the lack of a stable father figure, frequent departures from his "true love", wartime scenarios led by a larger-than-life commander, financial security brought upon by a business investment...even the gradual passing of time marked by well-known events throughout history (in this case, FDR's "Pearl Harbor" speech, a live performance by The Beatles and a shuttle launch, just to name a few). These recycled elements are ultimately lazy and distracting, and it's a shame that such a technically beautiful film couldn't have gotten a more original treatment.
Which is a shame, because it's hard to complain otherwise. Beautiful set designs, amazing (and in many cases, subtle) CGI effects, strong performances and great music help to provide many highlights along the way. The makeup and digital effects are what stand out the most during the first viewing, which mostly center on Pitt's slow-burning age regression; though stand-ins are used for different body frames, perfectly-sculpted masks help to maintain the illusion nicely. Voices are frequently altered by way of pitch-shifting, which are often employed perfectly to replicate different ages. It's hard to believe that Cate Blanchett is concealed beneath that figure laying dormant in a nursing home, but that's just one of many illusions that Benjamin Button pulls off with ease.
It's difficult to say whether or not the film's intriguing premise---or, of course, the strengths listed above---will be enough to sustain all audiences. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is certainly worth seeing at least once, but its slow-burning pace makes this 165-minute film feel like every...last...minute. Whether or not you appreciate the film, it's hard to deny the strength of this DVD release: the two-disc release is presented by The Criterion Collection and features a top-tier technical presentation and plenty of detailed bonus material. If you haven't already done so, this well-rounded release at least warrants a closer look.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button looks just about perfect from start to finish. Image detail is rock solid, while the film's heavily-stylized color palette holds up nicely. Black levels are consistent, even during the darkest of scenes. The transfer also appears to be free from edge enhancement and other digital eyesores---which is certainly good news, considering how much this film relies on strong visuals. Overall, fans should be pleased with Criterion's efforts from top to bottom.
The audio presentation is also outstanding, presented in a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix and also available in French and Spanish dubs. This dialogue-driven film is mostly anchored up front, but there's plenty of expansion during several stretches of the story. Whether it's the ambience of weather, crowd noise, scenes of war or simply the film's score, this is a deceptively active soundstage at times. It's odd that Criterion didn't opt for an additional DTS track, though disc space was most likely an issue. Optional English, Spanish and French subtitles are offered during the main feature and some of the applicable extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the lightly animated menu designs are relatively simple and easy to navigate, though the language/subtitle menus are a bit cumbersome. The 165-minute main feature has been divided into a scant 16 chapters (17, if you count the color bars), while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc release is housed in a clear, single-width keepcase with plastic hubs on both sides, which tend to damage the insert booklet slightly. A matching matte-finish slipcover is also included.
Disc 1 only includes one bonus feature, but it's a good one: we're treated to a feature-length Audio Commentary with director David Fincher, who does a fine job carrying this solo track for nearly three hours. Fincher is candid during this session, which includes discussion about the casting, visual effects, several of the supporting characters and themes, his personal life in comparison with certain story elements...and, of course, several production difficulties along the way. Refreshingly enough, Fincher also discusses a few regrets, either during the production or in hindsight, which include a handful of unused sequences and abandoned concepts.
Disc 2 leads off with the centerpiece of these extras, a feature-length production documentary entitled "The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button" (2:55:09, seen below). This exhaustive piece includes countless interviews with key cast and crew members, including Fincher, producer Kathleen Kennedy, former Universal executive Josh Donen, first assistant director Bob Wagner, visual effects designer Greg Strause, composer Alexandre Desplat and many, many more. It's divided into five sections ("Introduction", "First Trimester", "Second Trimester", "Third Trimester" and "Birth"), but a "Play All" option is also available. Talking head interviews are often shot in the first-person style of Fincher's own Zodiac featurettes, though plenty of production footage has been peppered throughout. Topics include the film's development and pre-production, principal photography, post-production, sound design, several demos of the visual effects and, of course, the film's premiere in December 2008. Overall, this is a fantastic companion piece and certainly worth watching.
Closing out the bonus disc is a collection of Still Galleries, though some are accessible during the previous documentary when played as separate segments. These extensive galleries include a look at the storyboards, art direction, costume designs and general production stills. The art direction gallery is particularly interesting, as it shows a number of the set designs and landscapes used in the film. It's a shame that a more extensive media and poster gallery wasn't included, though a separate section with two Theatrical Trailers (2 clips, 4:37 total) is also on board.
All applicable bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, though only the feature-length documentary includes optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. It's a shame that Criterion and Paramount didn't go the whole way (especially during the audio commentary), but at least there's been some effort in this department. With little repetition and almost every conceivable aspect of production covered in detail, there's plenty here to dig through after the credits roll.
As an additional sidenote, this screener also arrived with a hardcover copy of The Making of the Motion Picture, a handsome 176-page coffee table book filled with interviews, quotes, essays and production photos, available separately. There's plenty of overlap between this and the documentary, but it's nice to have this info in a more accessible format. Die-hard fans of the film, especially book collectors, will want to seek out this detailed companion piece.
The jury's still out on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: this is a technically impressive feature, but it's peppered with unoriginal story elements and ultimately overstays its welcome. Other than these obvious issues, though, it's tough to find many glaring faults: performances are relatively solid all around, the music is appropriate and visuals are stunning. Criterion's lavish two-disc Special Edition gets it right the first time around, combining a pitch-perfect technical presentation with a handful of in-depth bonus features. Though it's not recommended as a blind buy for obvious reasons (and it may not be one you'll watch very often), this two-disc Criterion release will satisfy those who have already seen and enjoyed David Fincher's latest effort. Mildly Recommended overall.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.