David Fincher raises expectations. If nothing else, he’s one of the best technical filmmakers working today, and he’s also a man who commits to a number of projects but tends to put a film out every once in a while. So the fact that he followed up 2007’s Zodiac a couple of months later with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was… curious to say the least.
The film follows the narrative of an elderly New Orleans woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) as she is about to die, and just as hurricane Katrina is about to hit. She’s attended by her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond), and Daisy gives her daughter the journals of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) to read to her as she passes on. Button was born in 1918, and was born an old man. Thought to die shortly after birth, his real father Thomas Button (Jason Flemying) leaves him on the porch of a retirement home, run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who then takes Button in.. But the further along Benjamin goes in life, the more it becomes apparent he’s aging backwards. He spends some time fighting in World War II, and falling in love with a Brittish spy’s wife (Tilda Swinton), but it appears the love of his life was always Daisy. The two just have troubles intersecting. And even when they finally do, Button’s got a clock.
Button was written by Eric Roth – who won an academy award for his Forrest Gump script – and it’s hard not to see how the two have a lot of similarities, with Button a character who passes through history with an odd but supportive mother figure, and who has an awkward stop/start relationship with the love of his life. And on first pass I found the film to be a bit too precious, with some moments of narrative neatness and poetry a bit overstated and a sense of hearing the wise southern voice, and a pre-occupation with the trickery.
I can’t say that I found the masterpiece in second pass, but I can say I was way more engaged on an emotional and spiritual level. There is something there, and Fincher is after the truth of the passage of time, and though he does have his moments that seem take from the Forrest Gump-ish film this could be (when the preacher dies), it’s also about the people who affect your life, the ins and outs of friendship and family, and what it means to know that you only have so much time left. It’s a mournful film, and a poignant one, and though I’m not sure if I’d ever love it, there’s definitely a lot here to chew one.
So it’s good that The Criterion Collection put it out as I don’t know if I would have given it a second chance any other way. The film widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD surround. The transfer is reference quality. Extras on the first disc are limited to a commentary by David Fincher. The second disc consists of a three hour documentary “The curious Birth of Benjamin Button,” which covers the entire making of, from concept to premiere, including the film’s lengthy pre-production period when Steven Spielberg was attached for a while. In each section of the making of are sections specific to that, mostly still galleries. There’s also four still galleries, and two trailers. The supplements were produced by David Prior, I have no idea how much the Criterion moniker is window dressing, but the transfer is excellent, and the documentary is thoroughly engaging. This is the best way to experience the picture, and the film reveals depths worth exploring.