Paramount // 2008 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 5th, 2009
Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments.
Everything about the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels important. It's been adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Eric Roth, Forrest Gump). It's directed by A-lister David Fincher, who has yet to make a bad film. It stars Hollywood royalty Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett and boasts an epic running time of nearly three hours. It was critically acclaimed and nominated for more Oscars than any other movie this year. Even its DVD release carries weight; it's one of the few new releases to go straight to the prestigious Criterion label. Yes, everything about Benjamin Button smacks of class.
So why don't I like it more?
Set on the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins as a dying woman (Cate Blanchett, Veronica Guerin) reads from the journal of Benjamin Button. Benjamin (Brad Pitt, Fight Club) was inexplicably born as an 80-year-old man and continues to age backwards, getting younger as the years progress. Raised in a New Orleans nursing home by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, Smokin' Aces) and surrounded by death, Benjamin eventually leaves to see the world and experience life for the first time. He fights in war, he has affairs and carries on a life-long relationship -- one that can't be a love affair for a long time, given the unusual circumstances of their age difference -- with Daisy (Blanchett), a beautiful ballerina who accepts Benjamin in spite of his bizarre affliction.
There are movies that I love despite knowing that they are far from perfect. I love them despite their flaws -- and sometimes because of them. Other people don't share or understand my affection, and that's OK. Sometimes, it just makes me like the movies more. I can't always explain why I love them; it's not always a tangible or measurable thing. They speak to me on some personal level. It's a gut response.
I suspect that I'm describing the reaction that a lot of people had to David Fincher's 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In a parallel world, it would be exactly the kind of movie I'm talking about: flawed, yes, but affecting me on some level that I can't quite explain or even understand. It would be the kind of movie that I love without being fully able to explain why.
In this world, though, it's a movie that I admire without responding to. It is technically beautiful and exquisitely made, but it remains there, coldly distant on the screen. It's Forrest Gump, as done by Stanley Kubrick...or David Fincher. Part of me wants to believe that that's the point; director David Fincher, who has never made a movie I didn't like, has never been one for sentiment. His films are technically perfect to the point of obsession, but they are also cold, black and cynical. And while those words don't apply to Benjamin Button, it is certainly a melancholy film; as Fincher himself says, it's not a love story but a death story.
Again, I've gone and described a movie I would like to see, but I'm not sure I've accurately described Benjamin Button. For all it's melancholy, beauty (I defy you to name a better-looking movie released in 2008), and technical precision, Button still wants us to be moved by its humanity. And, on that level, it fails. It goes through the motions; the beats are there. Still, we are not moved. We are impressed and sometimes awed, but we are not moved.
My biggest issue with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that I don't feel like Fincher and writer Eric Roth ever figured out exactly how to make the central conceit work. Yes, Benjamin ages backwards, but to what end? What ultimate purpose does this narrative hook serve? It gives way to its share of visual irony, where we see an old man experiencing life for the first time or befriending a young girl in a way that appears inappropriate (even though they're the same age). It helps demonstrate that yes, life is transient. Yes, we are destined to lose the people around us to both natural and unnatural causes. This is true even for those of us who don't age backwards. Benjamin is surrounded by death (growing up in a nursing home, going off to war), but that has nothing to do with his condition. That is the nature of life -- not just Benjamin's very special life. Except for its own oddness and the nifty visual tricks it inspires, there's little to justify the movie's major metaphor.
Benjamin himself remains relatively unchanged and doesn't make much of an impact on the world around him. He is little more than a passive observer of life; Pitt's performance reflects this passivity, too. It's right for the role, but again distant and staid. He's required to do little but be soft and unassuming and wide-eyed with wonder, all of which he does fine. But Benjamin, like much of the rest of the movie, is hard to care about; like the film itself, he stays at a cold distance. There has to be something that draws us into this story other than gorgeous visuals (really, the movie is like a moving painting) and state-of-the-art effects. I wanted desperately to find what that was, but was unable. I remain outside of Benjamin Button.
There are sequences that hint at the movie that Benjamin Button might have been. The prologue that opens the film, about a blind clockmaker who builds a clock that moves backwards in the hopes of reversing time and bringing back the boys killed in war, combines elements of fantasy with a sense of loss and tragedy better than much of what follows (and presumably offers some sort of explanation for Benjamin's condition). Another masterful sequence -- the best in the film -- is a long set piece detailing the sequence of seemingly random events that lead to a tragic accident. The movie needed more sequences like these two: a movie that's largely about storytelling (Benjamin telling stories from his life via a journal) could have used more these-things-happen short-story flights of fancy like this.
Now, Blu-ray technology was practically invented for movies like Benjamin Button, and I'm sure the two bring out the best in one another. But there are those of us who haven't yet made the 1080p transition and are still invested in that decade-old relic DVD, and I'm happy to say that the Criterion Collection hasn't let us down (do they ever?). The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16x9 playback, and looks quite gorgeous. Black levels are deep and consistent, the film's carefully chosen color palette looks just right and detail is sharp; as DVDs go, Benjamin Button is a first-rate transfer. The 5.1 audio track is plenty showy without losing the nuance of the movie's quieter moments.
This being the Criterion Collection, the two-disc special edition of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been packed with bonus material. On the first disc is a commentary track from director David Fincher. He's always an engaging speaker and articulate about the process of making movies, but I have to admit that his track on Button is a bit of a letdown. Maybe it's because on his best commentaries in the past, he's had actors to bounce off of (Brad Pitt on Seven, Pitt and Edward Norton on Fight Club) and here he's speaking alone; whatever the reason, there's not a lot said on the track that warrants a listen. He spends a lot of time on the technical aspects of the film (though much of that is covered in the exhaustive collection of featurettes on Disc Two), but too often lapses into describing the thoughts and feelings of the characters on screen. He says some interesting things about how to convincingly pull off the special effects (sometimes having to treat expensive effects shots as throwaways rather than linger over them), but the overall track is a little disappointing coming from a guy who's done better.
The main attraction on the second disc of supplementary material is a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes that, when combined (and the disc wisely offers a "play all" function) add up to a three-hour documentary on the making of the film. A short amount of time is spent on the movie's long development (one screenwriter had it for over ten years, though her name is nowhere on the finished film; directors like Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Spike Jonze were all attached to direct at one time or another), but the majority of the featurettes focus -- not surprisingly -- on the production design and visual effects. It's impressive to see the attention to detail that Fincher puts into the film (all his films, really), but this emphasis on surface over style speaks to why the Button ultimately falls short for me.
The featurettes have interviews from all the film's participants, which help contextualize some of what you're seeing and break up the monotony of behind-the-scenes stuff; they make it all much more watchable. However, there's a tone hanging over the proceedings that's hard to ignore: everyone talks about the movie as though it's already become a classic. Some of that is standard for promotional reasons, but you get the feeling that maybe we should all wait five or 10 years for remembrances like this. Button is just barely six months old.
There are also dozens and dozens of photos included, from storyboards to costume art to conceptual art to production stills. Fans of Button's visuals can easily get lost in the bonus materials included on this DVD. Rounding out the second disc are two trailers for the film.
Despite the "instant classic" status that both the Criterion label and the disc's supplemental features would have us convinced the movie deserves, I suspect that in years to come Benjamin Button is going to be remembered more for its technical achievements than for telling a moving story. I know the movie is beloved by many and that I will be unpopular for having problems with it. I want to like it, because I have fait in the ideas at work and in David Fincher. It's a movie I'll continue to revisit in the future, hoping that it takes on new meaning or affects me in a more personal way. Maybe it will be the kind of film that grows on me.
Criterion has put together a very nice package of a film that I desperately want to like. In the end, I just can't -- for now, at least.
Review content copyright © 2009 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Photo Galleries
* Official Site