THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayHow does one describe "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?" Director David Fincher and writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (Roth is the credited screenwriter) have fashioned a tale of a man's life into an epic film. But in the end, is the experience worthwhile?
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is now available on Blu-ray in a special two disc Criterion Collection edition.
Fincher is one hell of a talented director. There is no other way around it. His sense for creating movies that make you look twice is incredible. You may not like some of the results ("Alien 3"), or feel warm and fuzzy inside after all is said and done ("Se7en," "Fight Club," "Panic Room," "Zodiac"). But you admire his sense of making movies that are visceral. "Fight Club" made you feel like you'd been in the ring getting your face punched in. "Se7en" gave you a haunting jolt, as does "Zodiac." Where does "Benjamin Button" fall into Fincher's collection of films?
"Benjamin Button" is Fincher's sincere attempt at getting in touch with humanity. He has shown hints of letting his characters show compassion or heart, but they're normally put into an environment where something dark and deadly will happen. Not in the case of "Benjamin Button." Nearly every scene in the film has an emotional core. It's as if Fincher let go of the need to shock an audience. He seems to want the audience to discover he's got a beating heart as a director. The result is mixed, but it's hard not to admire the attempt.
The film is epic and long. It's not a film that encourages light viewing. Though I found it to be long and a bit slow, I wanted to see what happens in the end. Indeed, the film is predictable. With the premise of Benjamin Button being born as an old man, it's hard to make a film that's going to surprise the audience with any plot twists. You know that Pitt is going to age in reverse and what happens is inevitable. It's the journey there that we're concerned about.
Going from Benjamin Button's birth in the 1900s, the film meanders through 2005 as Katrina bears down on New Orleans. We see an elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) in the hospital as she remembers Benjamin. The film is then told, of course, in flashback. Fincher and company weave an intricate yarn. We're time travelers with Button and we meet the people he meets. Is his life anymore extraordinary than ours? Maybe. He was "born under unusual circumstances."
Upon thinking about the film, I found that other than the fact he's born old, he sees life and death just as the rest of probably do. We grow up with people who pass away. We fall in love. We fall in love with a person who can't return that love back. Those are some powerful elements in any story, real or imagined.
Unlike other Fincher films, there is an attempt at developing an emotional core. The film's first 20 minutes is packed with emotional scenes, yet they don't pack a wallop. I was caught up in the atmosphere of the film. Fincher and company do this brilliantly. The film pulls you into itself and you feel as though you're there in the 1900s or 1950s. What you don't feel, or at least I didn't, was a sense of emotionally bonding with Benjamin or any of his surrounding characters. I wanted to get involved and cry. I wanted to feel like I'd been through the wringer. I wanted to feel emotionally spent and not re-visit the film, mostly because I don't like crying in movies. Instead I came out with dry eyes and no lumps in my throat.
Why can't I bond with this film? Is it the fact that film sprawls on for almost 3-hours and covers a lot of ground and a lot of characters? Is it because Benjamin doesn't really bond with anyone? He does have a love for Daisy, but I couldn't settle into it. He goes out with other women in the course of his life, but I didn't get a sense that he really wanted Daisy, or that she wanted him. Their romance seemed convenient for the plot to move along. I didn't get a sense that I wanted to see these two people together. The short relationship that Button has with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) is more believable and sincere.
Brad Pitt does an outstanding job in portraying Benjamin through the years. It's tough for most actors to play a role that begins with youth then ends in old age. In this case, it's switched around. More than some of the other films I've seen of Pitt's, he's warm and sincere in this one. He's always struck me as an actor whose looks overwhelm his acting. He's sort of the high school jock-type you didn't care for because he had the looks, the money, the girls, and mostly treated you with indifference. Yet you kind of admired the guy for having the things you didn't have.
Pitt commands the screen, but I don't think he's yet on the level of his look-a-like, Robert Redford. Pitt acts well in this film, and this is perhaps his best performance outside of Fincher's "Fight Club." But his personality, at least in this film, isn't strong enough for me to care about what happens to him. He isn't warm. When people around him die, he simply accepts it and moves on. I guess that's one way of dealing with death. This also goes for Cate Blanchett's Daisy character. She does remember him with fondness, she's pretty and also sleeps around with other people. And even though she eventually comes around to Benjamin, I didn't think it was real.
The film looks great. Every period it takes you through, Fincher gives you a sense that you're there in the 1900s and so on. As a visual film, it works. Using digital visual effects techniques, he and his crew have created some outstanding environments. When I saw the initial scenes of Benjamin as an old child, I couldn't tell if it was good make-up or a visual effect. Now after seeing the film, I can see the visual effects and they're pretty incredible.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Every part of the soundtrack is rich in clarity and detail, even though this is probably Fincher's quietest film. Most of it centers on the dialogue, but music is nicely rendered. There are a few scenes that come alive and you're immersed into a sonic environment, such as when the tugboat is caught in battle. This is Blu-ray audio reference material.
The Blu-ray picture quality is also excellent. Most of the film was shot digitally, giving the film a very clear and sometimes three-dimensional appearance. Fincher has always been able to get solid cinematography from his D.P.s, and Claudio Miranda's work is outstanding here. The Blu-ray shows off the different looks of film and eras quite well. Again, most of the film was shot digitally, so most film stock scenes are more than likely digitally manipulated.
In watching the film, I couldn't help but think of other epic films that the Academy adores. "Benjamin Button" reminded me of "Citizen Kane," "The Color Purple," "Forrest Gump," and "Titanic." Place an unusual or love struck character into different eras of history, you've got any one of those movies. You're almost guaranteed the Academy will love you. Like most of those films, "Benjamin Button" ultimately left me feeling a bit cold. There is a lot in this film to admire, and Fincher has finally made a film that has some emotional depth to it. I'm sure this will be a film that will have its fans and those who think it's okay. Either way around it, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is an acheivement. What kind of achievement is up to the audience to decide.
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