'I was born under unusual circumstances.' And so begins The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, adapted from the 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards: a man, like any of us, who is unable to stop time. We follow his story, set in New Orleans, from the end of World War I in 1918 into the 21st century, following his journey that is as unusual as any man's life can be. Directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett with Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond, Benjamin Button, is a grand tale of a not-so-ordinary man and the people and places he discovers along the way, the loves he finds, the joys of life and the sadness of death, and what lasts beyond time.
The technical dazzle of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
is a truly astonishing thing to behold: this story of a man who ages backwards requires Brad Pitt to begin life as a tiny elderly man, then blossom into middle age, and finally, wisely, become young. How director David Fincher--with makeup artists, special-effects wizards, and body doubles--achieves this is one of the main sources of fascination in the early reels of the movie. The premise is loosely borrowed from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story (and bears an even stronger resemblance to Andrew Sean Greer's novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli), with young/old Benjamin growing up in New Orleans, meeting the girl of his dreams (Cate Blanchett), and sharing a few blissful years with her until their different aging agendas send them in opposite directions. The love story takes over the second half of the picture, as Eric Roth's script begins to resemble his work on Forrest Gump. This is too bad, because Benjamin's early life is a wonderfully picaresque journey, especially a set of midnight liaisons with a Russian lady (Tilda Swinton) in an atmospheric hotel. Fincher observes all this with an entomologist's eye, cool and exacting, which keeps the material from getting all gooey. Still, the Hurricane Katrina framing story feels put-on, and the movie lets Benjamin slide offscreen during its later stages--curious indeed.--Robert Horton
Also on the disc
Criterion offers a two-disc presentation of the 2008 Oscar-winner, stamped as "Director Approved." Hard to miss that, since David Fincher is all over the extras on this one: he provides a talkative commentary track for the 165-minute film, which leaves little doubt about his fabled involvement in every aspect of the results you see on screen, and he figures in the documentary sections contained on the second disc. Fincher is such an assured, skillful talker that he easily justifies the otherwise standard-issue collection of behind-the-scenes material. The documentary sections can be played as one epic (three hour) making-of feature, which actually lasts longer than the film itself; they are also carved up and can be played in handy parts: the origins of the project (tons of people considered making it, including Frank Oz, Ron Howard, and Spike Jonze), the flabbergasting technical trickery involved, shooting in post-Katrina New Orleans, and anything else you can think of. Especially illuminating is the step-by-step stuff about how Brad Pitt's face was motion-captured for the purposes of morphing it onto the work of body doubles--in case you're still puzzled about how all that really worked. The usual production stills and an essay by Kent Jones fill out the package. --Robert Horton
Stills from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Click for larger image)