The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Criterion Collection
May 4, 2009
For years now, the Academy Award has eluded David Fincher despite the consistently good work that he has produced. Films like Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) were too extreme for the play-it-safe Academy voters and The Game (1997) and Panic Room (2002) were genre exercises that never would have had a shot anyway. The complete snubbing of Zodiac (2007), Fincher’s best film to date, was unforgivable but, sadly, not surprising. And then along comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), a touching tale about a tragic romance spanning the entire lives of two people, one of whom ages in reverse.
Adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name by Eric Roth, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Forrest Gump (1994), there was speculation that Fincher had finally sold out and was going for the gold with an Academy-friendly film. While Benjamin Button was nominated for 13 Oscars, it only won three technical-oriented awards and once again Fincher came up empty handed. Is this film really the director kowtowing to the establishment or has he managed to yet again sneak a subversive message under the radar?
In New Orleans, on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, a very old woman named Daisy (Blanchett) lies on her deathbed as she tells her daughter (Ormond) the story of a clockmaker (Koteas) who lost his only son in World War I. He builds a clock that runs backwards as a gesture, a hope that all those who died in the war could come back to life, including his son. The clock, like the film’s protagonist, epitomizes time in reverse even if the rest of the world is not. Daisy asks her daughter to read from the diary of a man she knew named Benjamin Button (Pitt).
Benjamin was born at the end of World War I. However, as a baby, he looked like a miniature old man. Horrified, his father (Flemyng) took the baby and dumped the child on a stranger’s doorstep. A kind lady by the name of Queenie (Henson) takes young Benjamin in and raises him as if he was one of her own. Like the clockmaker’s clock, Benjamin ages in reverse – the older he gets in years, the younger he looks physically. He’s raised in a nursing home and is surrounded by death and those at the end of their lives while he’s just at the beginning of his, which gives him an odd outlook on life as you can imagine.
In 1930, Benjamin meets Daisy as a little girl while he still looks like a little old man. He confides in her his condition and a bond between them is established that will last their entire lives. As soon as he’s old enough and physically able, Benjamin strikes out on his own, acquiring life experiences, like working on a tugboat, traveling all over the world, and helping tow in ships destroyed during World War II. All of the people he meets have a story to tell – the tugboat captain (Harris) who is a tattoo artist or the woman who tried to swim the English Channel or the man hit by lightning seven times – and he learns something from all of them.
Something seems to happen whenever Fincher and Brad Pitt work together. They always seem to bring out the best in one another and this is no different. Pitt exudes a warmth that has never been evident before and he makes us care about what happens to Benjamin. Early on, Pitt is able to convey an openness as his character experiences new feelings, meets new people and grows up. Benjamin enjoys meeting people and listening to their adventures but he is not a passive, blank slate. He seizes opportunities to have his own adventures and see as much of the world as possible. In recent years, Pitt has really come into his own as an actor and improved with age, using his clout to push through fascinating films like Babel (2006), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and now Benjamin Button, arguably his best performance to date.
Fincher has also entered a new, fascinating period in his career that began with Zodiac and continues with this moving meditation on the passing of time and what it means to get old. We are the sum of our parts and of what we have learned (or haven’t learned) from our life experiences. Fincher’s trademark meticulous attention to detail is incredible with this film, from recreating 1930s New Orleans to New York City in the 1950s, he transports us to another time and place, which is what films are supposed to do. Benjamin Button is filled with beautiful imagery, like the scene where Benjamin and Daisy take a tugboat ride in the early morning fog, or the eerie, late night attack on an enemy submarine, or Daisy dancing seductively for Benjamin in the moonlight. There are also magical, intimate moments, like the late night conversations Benjamin has with the wife (Swinton) of a spy in the kitchen of a hotel in Russia. Fincher has created an intimate character study on an epic scale.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director David Fincher. He talks about the arduous task of applying Cate Blanchett’s old age makeup and how it affected her performance. He talks about how they avoided sappy sentimentality whenever possible. Fincher also talks about how they cast various roles in the film and what they were looking for. He tells all kinds of interesting and engaging filming anecdotes about the challenges of shooting on location with his trademark dry sense of humour. This is another outstanding track by Fincher as he offers eloquent observations and tells entertaining stories.
As with all special edition DVDs of Fincher’s films, Benjamin Button documents various aspects of the production in detail. Entitled, “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button,” this making of documentary is broken down into several digestible sections.
“The First Trimester” documents the pre-production phase and Fincher kicks things off with a surprisingly moving preface where he recounts the death of his father and how that drew him closer to the material. This section takes us through the origins of the project and how Steven Spielberg almost did it with Tom Cruise. We go through the long screenwriting process that lasted several years. We also see Fincher and his crew scouting locations that would span several years and countries. Also included are storyboard and art direction galleries.
“The Second Trimester” examines principal photography with all kinds of behind-the-scenes footage. We see several sets being built with various key crew members talking about their work on the film. Several major cast members talk about how they got involved and their impressions of the film and of Fincher’s legendary reputation. We also get to see how the tugboat was built on a soundstage where all of its scenes were shot. There is fascinating insight into the elaborate aging makeup. Aspects of costume design are also covered, including a gallery.
“Third Trimester” takes a look at the film’s groundbreaking visual effects. We see, in great detail, how they seamlessly digitally grafted Brad Pitt’s face onto other actor’s bodies. It is amazing to see just how much work was involved. We also see how they did the CGI for the tugboat scenes and other things, like the background plates for scenes that took place in exotic locations. Other aspects, like sound design and Alexandre Desplat’s atmospheric score, are examined. It’s great to see Desplat at work and interview soundbites where he talks about his working method.
“Birth” features footage of the film’s premiere in New Orleans with the cast and crew reflecting on the experience of making the film and what it means to them. Also included is a gallery of production stills.
Finally, there are two theatrical trailers.