“I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.”
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON probably isn’t the ‘longest in development’ project in Hollywood history, but after watching the exhaustively comprehensive supplemental features on Criterion’s Blu-Ray release, it certainly seems like it. The story on which it was based, was a slight toss-off by F Scott Fitzgerald (before getting on to weightier themes); it was first published by Colliers in 1921 but is most familiar to readers born after Armistice Day as part of a collection of other Fitzgerald short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age. It’s a sad little tale told in 11 short chapters, and could easily be read in the time it takes to watch the adverts before the start of a film in the cinema. But its central conceit – a boy born to a wealthy family as a wrinkled creature replete with all the maladies of old age, whose body and mind grow younger and stronger with each passing year until finally passing away as a normal looking, newborn baby – attracted top talent for decades until it finally landed in the lap of David Fincher. Before sitting down with Fincher’s take on the material, try to imaging the Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise version – or better yet, the Frank Oz and Martin Short version from the early ’90s – and thank whatever loving deity you may pray to in your quiet moments that it wound up where it did. Not to say that the source material is a sacred text, but the world certainly didn’t need another Jack.
Like David Fincher’s best films, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is an emotionally distant picture that occasionally feels at odds with Eric Roth’s sentimental script. When the film was first released, there were numerous comparisons to Forrest Gump (Mark Kermode called it “Forrest Gump with A levels”), though most critics with their wits about them were forced to acknowledge Fincher’s less populist approach. And while the episodic structure moves through the 20th century in a tangentially similar fashion, Gump’s empty sentimentalism showed us his effect on the world around him, while Button’s narrative is far more insular, focusing on the effect that the people in Benjamin’s’ life had on him.
One of the many additions to the text is a framing device taking place in the New Orleans hospital room of an elderly woman (Cate Blanchett) while Hurricane Katrina approaches the city. When the nurse tells her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) that the end is near, her mother asks her to read through a diary belonging to a man that Caroline has never heard of before…
Benjamin is born to wealthy New Orleans button manufacturer Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) amid the fireworks and celebration of Armistice Day in 1918. After his wife dies in childbirth, Thomas can find no solace in the deformed infant he holds in his arms, so he leaves the child at the doorstep of a rest home run by Queenie (Oscar nominee Taraji P Henson) and Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) along with a small amount of money. Queenie raises Benjamin as her own, and within the confines of the rest home, his septuagenarian appearance goes relatively unnoticed. It’s at this stage when Benjamin is first played by Brad Pitt – sort of. Utilizing an effects process that is gone over in great detail in the supplemental documentary, Pitt’s face is digitally aged, and his head is then inserted over the performance double used in the scene. It’s a breathtaking effect (particularly when you see the raw footage that they started with).
Eventually, Benjamin Button outgrows the diseases of old age and begins to appear like a healthy man – albeit in his late ’60s and with the mind of a child. He meets Daisy (played as a young girl by Elle Fanning) for the first time, while she is at the home visiting her grandmother and Benjamin’s life changes forever. These scenes must have carried more than a whiff of pedophilia on the page, even with the knowledge that Daisy and Benjamin are the same mental age (an excuse that has likely been used to defend many child molesters throughout history), but Fincher’ non-sensationalist style ensures that that particular fuse isn’t lit.
There are great performances in the early part of the film, particularly Henson, who brings immeasurable warmth to a part that could easily have been a stereotypical minefield. However, one of the key problems with THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is the lack of a strong narrative drive to propel the audience through its 165 minute running time. We follow Benjamin’s service on a tug boat, which is brought into service during WWII, and through a brief affair in Moscow with Tilda Swinton as the wife of a British spy. All these passages have lovely moments tucked into them (particularly Swinton’s scenes in Moscow), but there’s the inescapable feeling that we’re just marking time until he and Daisy eventually reconnect.
It does take a load off the picture’s shoulders to have Pitt finally appearing in his physical entirety (with the help of some aging prosthetics.) THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON does take an assured, positive step once Daisy is finally introduced as an adult – after the initial shock, she simply accepts his reversed aging process and they move on. Instead of allowing the story to become bogged down with the myriad medical examinations that would certainly be the focus of Benjamin’s life in a real world, Fincher approaches the story more like a fable, with characters rarely suspicious of the main character’s condition. The digital trickery employed to shave 20 years off Ms. Blanchett feels a touch unnecessary, but she fares much better than Patrick Stewart did in X-Men 3, where his face looks to have been gone over with a floor buffer. But this, like the dubbing over of young Ms. Fanning’s voice with Blanchett’s, calls attention to itself and feels like digital overkill; artists doing something because they can, instead of because they should.
Thankfully, the next portion of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON finds both leads drifting closer to their own natural age, and therefore feels like the most emotionally genuine section of the film. Pulled apart by circumstances, brought together by fate, but doomed to finally drift apart, their relationship pushes the film beyond the constraints of a purely technical exercise and provide genuine heart. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett had previously played a married couple in Babel, but the nature of that film gave the pair few tender moments. Here, at least for a brief time, we’re invited to luxuriate with them as they share an extended honeymoon sailing through the Gulf of Mexico and settling down to a brief period of domestic bliss – but always with the specter of Benjamin’s affliction looming over their lives together.
This section of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON will be many peoples’ favorite, and viewers will perhaps feel cheated when it’s rushed through in near-montage. Anyone familiar with David Fincher’s previous work will certainly know what not to expect, and he states very plainly in the audio commentary that he always felt that this was much more of a death story than a love story. Fincher is a sometimes cold yet always precise director whose films are typically mistaken for embracing man’s darker nature. Fincher’s best work (a list that ranges from Se7en and Fight Club right up to the best film of 2007, Zodiac) deals with decent men who are confronted by an almost unimaginable darkness, but BENJAMIN BUTTON represents a radical departure, musing on the vagaries of fate within an narrative that is at once insular and expansive. There is no bête noir following and testing Benjamin, and the tragic note on which his life will end is telegraphed from the very beginning and there isn’t much that Fincher can to without the notes of conflict that have propelled his other films.
That having been said, David Fincher’s clinical style definitely elevates Eric Roth’s script, never allowing it to become too sickly sweet or mawkish – oddly making Fincher the ideal choice for this particular project. The performances are roundly excellent; Cate Blanchett is simply luminous as Daisy, firmly grounding the material in her character’s easy acceptance of Benjamin’s curious case. Tilda Swinton is also superb in her smallish section of the film, as are Jared Harris as Benjamin’s tug boat captain, and Jason Flemyng has some heart-wrenching moments as Benjamin Button’s father, physically twisted by his own regret.
But it’s Brad Pitt’s central Oscar-nominated performance that is tasked to anchor the film. Like Ocean’s 11 co-star George Clooney, Pitt is a high-wattage movie star of the first order, and also like Clooney, his attempts to subvert that star persona have met with a spotty success rate. Films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have smartly utilized his near-iconic presence, while goofball turns in films like Burn After Reading merely seem random. There is no question that Pitt has been steadily improving as an actor, and his performance here is technically brilliant, but compare this to Sean Penn’s utter transformation in Milk or Mickey Rourke vomiting up his own tortured soul in The Wrestler and you realize that Pitt has never actually risked anything in front of the camera.
DVD AND BLU-RAY DETAILS
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is the third David Fincher film to get the Criterion treatment (and how fondly will my fellow laserdisc enthusiasts recall their double plus good sets of Se7en and The Game…) but the first to see DVD and Blu-Ray releases. The DVD releases were presented in conjunction with Paramount, resulting in a somewhat confusing release pattern. The single disc DVD edition, featuring the movie without any extras, is being released by Paramount. But the double disc DVD and Blu-Ray sets are being released as a Criterion product, featuring the identical set of impressive special features. Disc One inlcudes the film only with an optional commentary track by Fincher; it was a smart decision, as the feature runs 165min and the careful photography needs all the bit rate that it can get. Fincher’s commentary is smart but halting – almost as if he’s mulling over another edit in his mind as he watches. Criterion also provides (as they have with other releases) an extremely helpful index for the commentary track.
The main feature on the Second Disc is a mammoth documentary running just shy of 3 hours, charting the film’s long gestation to the screen, through pre-production, shooting, the massive post-production period of motion capturing Pitt’s face and detailing the massive number of complex digital effects shots. While the knowledge of the mind-bending amount of work that went into these scenes is certainly fascinating on its own, it does have the effect of tuning the viewer’s radar to spotting the effects instead of concentrating on the unfolding drama and should only be viewed after watching the main feature. The documentary features interviews with all key production personnel and is filmed in the same clean style as the superb supplemental on the Zodiac disc. There are also several large photo galleries and two theatrical trailers that heroically struggle to sell the difficult film.
The major difference between the versions, is, of course, the 1080p Blu-Ray image. Like Zodiac, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON was filmed using (largely) the digital Viper camera, and like many films shot on high-end digital video, the standard definition DVD image can seem unusually pasty and smeary. The DVD of BENJAMIN BUTTON doesn’t exactly look bad, but the night and day difference between it and the Blu-Ray is startling. There seems to be less grain in BENJAMIN BUTTON than we’ve seen in other digitally-shot films (Zodiac features a more typical level while Michael Mann’s Miami Vice has the most we’ve ever seen) and appears more film-like than we thought possible. The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is, in essence, the same type of direct digital conversion that occurs when the Pixar films are released on the format, and with nearly the same “wow” factor. This is one of the very best transfers that we’ve ever seen, with close-ups of the actor’s faces sometimes generating an uncomfortable level of intimacy, and in this sense, Blu-Ray is the ultimate judge of effects, makeup and performance – nothing escapes the camera’s eye! This level of detail extends to the documentary, too, with the photography of the stars rivaling their appearance in other films.
Although restrained by weaknesses in the script and limitations of the source material, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a very satisfying bit of drama that pushes David Fincher about as close to the edge of sentimentality as he’s ever likely to go. With his guidance, the film nudges the art of digital effects further than ever before, creating one of the few instances where they actually seem to be an organic part of the traditional filmmaking process. Highly recommended.