The third collaboration between actor Brad Pitt and director David Fincher was the one where they managed to hit both box office paydirt, and generate serious Oscar attention.
Laden down with Academy Award nominations, including a deserved best acting nom for Pitt in the title role, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button however is both their most ambitious teaming to date, and conversely, their weakest. Compared to the skin-tight Seven and the quite astounding Fight Club – both films with a right to be regarded as modern day classics – The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button feels slighter, in spite of a running time that tests the backside at approaching three hours. Fortunately, I’ve got a comfy sofa.
I should state quickly that I quite liked the film. Based very loosely on a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a flick that tells the story of a man who is born old, and basically ages backwards. It’s not quite that straightforward, of course, as the ravages of old age hit him when his body is seemingly at his youngest, and vice versa, but it’s essentially a very simple and chronological tale, slickly executed. It also sees David Fincher on top form again behind the camera, with some excellent sequences and plenty to confirm that he’s one of America’s very best working directors.
To the story, though (and there are a couple of spoilers coming up if you’ve not seen it). Abandoned by his father after his mother died giving birth to him, Benjamin is left on the doorstep of Queenie, who becomes his mother. From there, not a million miles away from the approach of Forrest Gump (and Eric Roth, who penned Gump, gets a co-writing credit here), we follow Benjamin as he goes through various episodes in his life. So, for instance, we follow him on the high seas as he gets a job on board a ship, and ultimately goes to war. We see him dealing with the fact that he’s getting younger. And we follow his romances, too.
The most important one is with Cate Blanchett’s Daisy, who flits in and out of the film, with her life heading in the opposite direction to Button’s. Her dream is to be a dancer, and with parallels again of Forrest Gump, they move in and out of each other’s lives. To an extent, it’s a doomed relationship, and it proves to be a pillar around which the film hangs its story. It is, I should note, a better film than Gump, in case you’re thinking that’s where this is headed.
The story is told in flashback, with a dying, elderly version of Daisy listening to the stories that Benjamin has left in his book being read to her by her daughter (played by Julia Ormond). Against, for some reason, the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina, it’s a narrative device that allows Fincher to jump in at the parts of the story he wants, and it also throws up as a by-product by far the weakest scenes in the film. I didn’t warm to the hospital segments at all, and felt they added unwelcome extra running time to the final cut.
What ultimately surprised me, though, is that the film didn’t have that much to say. Across nearly three hours, I was entertained, and learned that people get old and that life changes, but never felt like I’d got under the skin of any of the characters, nor been served anything more than a well told life story. Bits of it stood out, with some stunning sequences at sea, an excellent opening and a final act that it’s to the credit of Fincher and co manages to have such emotional resonance. But it’s still a surprisingly slight, if superbly made film.
It’s also the film that’s made the best implicit use of special effects I’ve seen in some time, with little in the way of showboating, but instead computers being genuinely used for a proper purpose. The end product, though, while just the kind of material that Oscar likes, is not, for my money, quite the sum of its very rich parts.
The Disc The Blu-ray presentation is quite outstanding, with several shots – not least those at sea – looking quite superb in 1080p. But the picture is awash with detail even in the darker scenes. It’s hard to pick fault with, and it’s one of the finest transfers I’ve seen this year. The surround track is very subtle in places, but also rich, and capable of ramping up the necessary grumble where required. It’s a vibrant soundstage, and a strong mix.
The extras are plentiful, and spread across two discs. David Fincher offers a strong commentary track on the first, and is clearly passionate about his film. It’s definitely worth a spin.
The golden extra, though, is found on disc two. It’s a peach of a documentary entitled The Curious Birth Of Benjamin Button. This, while broken up, is longer than the film itself, and goes into exhaustive detail on the before, during and after of the making of the film. You’re unlikely to find such a complete making of on a disc this year, and it instantly makes the disc a must buy. A quite brilliant extra feature, and akin to the wonderful, similar feature on the DVD of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It’s thoughtfully broken up, too, if you don’t want to digest it all at once, but the word ‘exhaustive’ barely begins to cover it.
Summing Up While I don’t buy that the film is up with the standards of the earlier collaborations between Pitt and Fincher, it’s still superbly directed by Fincher, and still worth taking a look at. I’d have liked a better, more pointed script, I guess, and a slightly shorter running time. But despite my reservations, it’s still a worthwhile piece of cinema. The 2-disc set, however, is an absolute corker, and the decision to focus energies on one superb extra feature, rather than a smattering of tedious featurettes, is utterly vindicated.
The Film:The Disc: