"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is not a great film by any traditional standards. Despite its extreme length, it doesn't scale any metaphysical mountains or make any epic pronouncements on the psychology of the human condition. It's a simple story about a simple man, a man coping as best he can with the difficulties life throws at him and succeeding beyond expectations. It's really a "little" film about a little man, a man who might, nevertheless, well serve as an uplifting inspiration to the rest of us who have far less to overcome. The movie is gentle and sweet. Nothing more. Nothing less. And told most poetically.
The movie's title is not the only thing "curious" about this movie. Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. co-produced the film, and the discs are a part of the Criterion Collection. Talk about strange bedfellows. Anyway, here we get a "Director Approved" two-disc Special Edition, with plenty of bonus items. Disc one contains the feature film and an audio commentary by director David Fincher. For those of you who like commentaries, this one is better than most. Fincher is admirably straightforward, businesslike, and informative, although he is good-natured, too. In addition, the disc contains sixteen scene selections, plus color bars, a rather small number considering the film's length; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Disc two contains the bulk of the supplementary materials. The most important is a four-part documentary on the making of the film, a documentary totaling over three hours. Part one is "First Trimester: Beginnings"; part two is "Second Trimester: Production"; part three is "Third Trimester: Visual Effects"; and part four "Birth: Première," with a preface thrown in for good measure. This documentary, presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, comes off like the film, meaning that it includes more detail than most people will want or need. We get comments on just about everything connected to the film's creation from just about everybody who had anything to do with it. For me, the CGI work seemed most fascinating.
Next, we have a series of still galleries, divided into sections on storyboards, art direction, costumes, and production photos; followed by two widescreen, anamorphic theatrical trailers. Criterion also include a booklet insert with an essay by film critic Kent Jones and pertinent information on the film, and they enclose the two discs in a slim-line keep case with a handsome slipcover.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio sounds clear and clean, even though it also tends to be a tad bright and forward. It crisply articulates dialogue and other midrange sonics, while nicely extending bass and highs. The engineers use the surrounds subtly to complement the primary sound, yet during the big fireworks, storm, crowd, and war scenes, they open up the rear speakers robustly, along with utilizing a tremendously wide dynamic range and a strong dynamic impact.
What you have to understand about the video is that Fincher, as is his wont lately, shot most of the movie digitally. This provides the film with a soft, flat, misty atmosphere that tends to reinforce its fairy-tale nature, further exacerbated by its being downscaled to standard-def 480p. Let's just say the resultant picture quality will not impress videophiles looking for the utmost in detailing and definition.
The anamorphic transfer preserves the film's 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio and all of its digital characteristics. The image is low-key and the colors subdued, much of the time looking like early silent-film monochrome. The picture can often look glossy, too, with strong white contrasts, which almost gleam off the screen. Hues are fine when Fincher chooses to emphasize them, and they tend to open up in the later stages of the film as the story line advances from its more period setting. The same with the film's definition, which is usually soft and plushy but can look extraordinarily sharp on occasion as well.
In order to appreciate more fully 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the viewer might want to consider a few things:
8. Don't expect the movie to be anything like what director David Fincher has done in the past. Most people know him as a director of action and crime thrillers like "Alien 3," "Se7en," "The Game," "Fight Club," "Panic Room," and "Zodiac." "Benjamin Button" couldn't be more different. It's an amiable fantasy, a lyrical, modern-day fairy tale based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you go into it expecting horror, suspense, excitement, or bloody violence, you'll probably think Fincher copped out on you, and the movie will sorely disappoint. Be advised.
7. Understand from the start that the film is way too long for its own good at 165 minutes. It's a charming and delightful film in the long run, but that "long run" can be irritatingly lengthy as it rambles through eighty-some years of a man's life. If Fincher ever does a Director's Cut, maybe he'll consider cutting the film by thirty or forty minutes. As it stands, the movie feels like exactly what it is, a short story padded, with brief patches of tedium along with more-extended stretches of enchantment.
6. The film's story line would seem tailor-made for a moral lesson or message, but you'll look in vain to find one. While the idea of a man born old who ages backwards, getting younger by the day, may seem to hold the promise of some ultimate symbolic meaning, in the end the story is just that of a man born old who gets younger. Oh, sure, a person can fit--wedge, really--a metaphoric or philosophical theme into the structure and read into it anything a person chooses. But you do so at your own risk, and in any case the movie works perfectly well without over-intellectualizing it. For instance, I've read in various places that the film is about the fragility of Time, or Man's underutilization of Time, or the importance of what's inside a person rather than what we see on the outside. All fair and good and highly superficial. Trying to invest "Benjamin Button" with a moral is like trying to teach a kid the inner, emblematic, connotative "meaning" of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." When the connections are tenuous, the result is a sucking of all life from a tale.
5. Don't discount the film's primary actor, Brad Pitt, before you see him in the role. If you only think of Pitt as an action star in films like "Fight Club," "Spy Game," "Ocean's Eleven," "Troy," and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," think again. As the main character, Pitt is a virtuous, pleasant, helpful, tenderhearted man who learns early on to live with his affliction and uses it to his advantage and to the advantage of those around him. His character expects no pity, nor do we as an audience afford him any. The Academy nominated Pitt for an Oscar in the role, and not without reason. He does what any good actor should do by investing his character with vitality and empathy, making him vivid and alive and unforgettable.
4. Don't discount the supporting cast. They are uniformly excellent in bringing the story to life. Even if you somehow don't find Brad Pitt to your liking, it's hard not to respect the work of Cate Blanchette as Daisy, Benjamin's friend from childhood; Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, the adoptive mother who cares for Benjamin from birth and raises him in an old folks home; Jarred Harris as Captain Mike, Benjamin's first employer; Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott, the woman who teaches Benjamin as much as anyone about the real world; and a host of others.
3. Agree at the start that the real star of the movie is going to be the studio's visual effects department. Don't fight it, no matter how much you dislike special-effects films. Pitt's transformations throughout the story look nothing short of astonishing. Thank here the makeup people, the CGI people, the prosthetics people, everyone involved in ensuring that at no time in the movie does Pitt ever look anything but the age depicted. It helps, of course, that Pitt in his real-life mid-forties still looks boyishly handsome and can easily pass for a younger man as he ages backwards. But thank mainly those folks in charge of art direction, makeup, visual effects, cinematography, and costume design, all of whom the Academy nominated for Oscars. (The film won in three categories: Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects, by the way.)
2. Admit beforehand that you are not going into the film hoping for a conventional love story. Button is born an old man. When he is very young, he meets and befriends a young girl who is also very young. But she looks about ten and he looks in late seventies. We can see what's coming. As the years roll by, she will get older and he will get younger, and they will meet somewhere in the middle. Still, how many years will they have together before she's an old lady and he's a child? A precious few. It's a poignant affair, to be sure, but it's hardly going to be a lasting relationship. This isn't another "Harold and Maude," after all.
1. Accept the fact that the movie is either going to delight you or bore you to tears. It's the kind of film where there isn't any middle ground. Personally, I avoided seeing the picture in a theater for the first month or so of its release. It didn't seem like the kind of film I thought I would enjoy; it sounded too sentimental, schmaltzy, tedious, and mundane. The Wife-O-Meter prodded me into seeing it, and we both came away happy and not a little teary-eyed.
Other viewers will react differently, naturally. Only watching the film counts, and, to take a cue from the movie, only time will tell.