Criterion // 2008 // 165 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 1st, 2009
Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments.
As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, or so I'm told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.
These are the first words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and I highlight these words to demonstrate Fitzgerald's mastery of English prose. This passage shows a unique, comforting, lilting voice that was Fitzgerald's hallmark. I also include here to point out the supremacy of style in F. Scott's work. In these hundred words we learn only a few concrete facts: the year (1860), that our protagonist was born to the Buttons, that this birth occurred in a hospital, and that this was a rare event in those days. Yet already, from just these few words, we can see a character, a voice taking shape; after this single paragraph we are already intimate with this narrator.
Finally, I present this passage to show why Fitzgerald (and many of his peers like Hemingway and Faulkner) has been poorly served by cinema. Too many screenwriters latch onto the "facts" Fitzgerald's stories, forgetting that it's the telling, not the tale, that matters. Because cinema is a medium of "showing," not "telling," the task of adapting Fitzgerald's work successfully is a daunting one. Luckily, screenwriter Eric Roth and director David Fincher were up to the task, updating the core story of Fitzgerald's short story and transporting it from Baltimore to New Orleans. The result is a beautiful film worth of Fitzgerald's legacy.
As Hurricane Katrina prepares to hit New Orleans, an old woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) lies in one of the city's hospitals, dying. Before shuffling off the mortal coil, she tries to set things right with her daughter (Julia Ormond, Inland Empire) by having her read the journal of one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, Fight Club). It seems that Benjamin was born with the body of an 80-year-old man, and as he "grows up," he ages backward, appearing to get younger with each passing year. This film is the story of his life and his love for Daisy.
There comes a time in the lives of most great artists when their craft has become second nature and they find material worthy of their talents; It happened with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. It happened to Marty Scorsese on Taxi Drive (and again on Raging Bull). It has happened again with David Fincher and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here we see a great artist using every tool at his disposal in service of a story he believes in. Although Fincher hasn't entirely given up his bravura camerawork or stylish editing, but they no longer self-consciously announce themselves as they have in the past. In many ways this film seems less a "David Fincher film" because the director doesn't seem to have thrown himself in front of the material, but allowed it to grow out of the story. Another reason might be that Fincher was so busy organizing all the elements of this three hour movie that he didn't have a chance to be more self-conscious.
The orchestration of the various cinematic elements of Benjamin Button is the film's real triumph. I can't recall the last time I felt this absorbed in a world created entirely on the screen. The success is due to both practical and special effects. It helps that the filmmakers utilized Louisiana for shooting and that many of the scenes take place in locations that feel lived in, which makes the more fantastic elements of Benjamin Button more believable. On the other hand, you have the masterful special effects going on throughout the film. Much of the credit goes to the fantastic makeup artists who convincingly age (both backward and forward) the film's stars. Obviously individual makeup is well done, but even more impressive is just how much of it they have to do. This isn't a film where a single character ages drastically, but one in which a dozen subtle transformations occur each scene. On top of that is the fairly subtle use of CGI to create continuity with Brad Pitt's features as he goes from baby to "grown up." If that weren't enough, Fincher musters more traditional cinematic tools like (simulated) changes in film stock to give different locations and eras their own special feel.
Fincher is also one of those lucky directors who never seems to work with any but A-list actors, and that trend continues with Benjamin Button. Brad Pitt reaches a Zen space early in the film and provides a sense of calm and child-like wonder throughout the film. Where other actors would make Benjamin seem both boring and stupid with this tactic, Pitt manages to convey both wonder and intelligence. Cate Blanchett is his perfect foil here, bringing a fiery passion to her role as Daisy. Together they both show their growth and maturation throughout the years. Special attention should be paid to Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin's adoptive mother for her tremendous strength, and Tilda Swinton as a tragically beautiful woman Benjamin meets in Russia.
I have one word about the Blu-ray disc of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: superlative. The vast majority of the film was captured digitally, so the source is pristine, and with nothing but the film on a 50BG Blu-ray disc, there are no compression problems to speak of. Detail is rich, colors are saturated, and blacks are deep. Until we have the ability to watch completely uncompressed video, Benjamin Button is going to be a benchmark. Although cinema is considered a visual medium, sound plays a tremendous part, and Benjamin Button is no exception. The video in this case is matched by a DTS-HD track that is pristine and clear, with easily audible dialogue and music.
In addition to the beautiful audiovisual presentation, Criterion has provided its usual selection of superior extras. The only extra on the first disc is a commentary by the typically informative David Fincher. If this was all they'd included, I wouldn't feel cheated, but there's an entire second disc filled with featurettes, trailers, and photos from the film. Those featurettes include interviews with all the principles, and while the focus often stays with the visual effects, the whole production gets discussed as well.
Reviewing DVDs of new releases is a difficult job. After a week or two, the reviewer has to pass judgment on a film with little opportunity for the film to "soak." This is an especially difficult situation with a film like Benjamin Button, which appears so perfect on the surface, is so epic in scope, and comes surrounded by so much hype. My gut tells me Benjamin Button is a great film from a great filmmaker, but it's entirely possible that time will prove it to be a bit overdone.
Also, I should mention that I've committed in this review to praising Benjamin Button because I think so much of it is worthy of praise. However, I can see that there are certainly elements to criticize. First, there's not really a compelling story behind the conceit of a man growing younger. The film is also a bit long, and I can see some taking issue with the more "allegorical" scenes (like those with the clock in the beginning).
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful film, and this Blu-ray release by the folks at Criterion is recommended for at least a rental by all fans of cinema. Whatever you might think of the film, this disc is a treat to watch on a big-screen, and the extras are a nice snapshot of state-of-the-art visual effects in the waning moments of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is guilty of taking a long, hard look at what it means to grow old.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13