STUDIO: Paramount
MSRP: $34.98
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes
• Commentary w/ David Fincher
• Interviews w/ Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
• Interview w/ Alexandre Desplat, composer
• Special aging effects featurette
• Behind-the-scenes featurette
• Production stills

The Pitch

“It’s like The Time-Traveller’s Wife meets Forrest Gump!”

The Humans

Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormand, Jason Flemyng, Tilda Swinton.

The Nutshell

Young Benjamin enters the world with all the physical characteristics of an old man, wrinkled, arthritic, and seemingly near death. As he grows up, he grows younger. An amiable outcast because of his appearance, Benjamin wanders through life, backward and forward at the same time as he ages in reverse. At various points of his life he intersects moments of happiness, which maybe were expecting him to come from the other direction. Unable to hold onto any of them for long, though, Benjamin suffers the sting of loss time and again.

The Lowdown

Reviews of DVDs of popular films are really more like post-mortems. The thing has been criticized to death, so now we also-rans get to dig it up and — instead of offering fresh criticisms — just take a long, slow look at what is either a beautiful or a dessicated corpse.

That’s disingenuous of me. The best films remain vibrant, no matter how many critics have considered them, or when they do so. That leaves me in a strange situation, justifying my contribution here to the criticism of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here’s the best excuse I can offer: I have a few opinions, and I’m obligated to share them.

I love films like Benjamin Button because they’re so easy to write about. Big movies, with broad horizons, give me plenty of room to paddle about, engaging with some facet or another with each dip of the oars. At the same time, I recognize that simply jamming a film with detail, obfuscated plots and themes, and fantasy does not always result in success, when it comes to the thing’s integrity. (Donnie Darko is my whipping boy of note in this arena.) There’s plenty of discrete content, sure, enough to write about for pages, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to form a coherent reading of the thing when it’s all over.

I may as well start at the bottom and work up. To my eyes, Benjamin Button is a lengthy consideration of loss, but not of love, despite the love story at the center. I say that because the character of Benjamin is a cipher. He narrates, he takes the focus of the action, but he does not exist as a full character. Whereas loss is usually preceded by love, here loss — the mechanical action of losing someone or something — is divorced from the attachment. My suspicion is that this was intentional, owing partly to Benjamin’s disconnect from the regular flow of time — things happen in the wrong order for him.

This turns Benjamin into a clever device for showing an ideal opposite of the lives of the audience — or, maybe, an opposite of the ideal lives of the audience. Our lives should and must contain loss, of course, but going by the normal stream of time we gain more and more as we grow older. So, even though Benjamin still treads the future without foreknowledge, to reverse him from our lives requires that he lose more and more as he grows older in spirit, younger in body. My gripe here is that, because Benjamin’s fiction is dominated by loss, he becomes too plainly that clever device.

It’s not a large gripe, I admit, since writer Eric Roth knew what he was doing and deployed Benjamin deliberately and with good intent. He’s a machine, designed to illustrate what a life might be like if everything went the wrong way, if life became emptier and emptier as time went on — a miserable proposition, but one you might apply to us regular-moving folks, anyway.

I have a nasty habit of divorcing the technical achievements of a movie from their storytelling counterparts, which I think originates in my “everything serves the story” mindset. It’s also why I’d like to make special note of how beautifully the editing and makeup support the gradual transitions of Benjamin from old man to baby. I tried looking for seams, and ended up getting drawn in by the magic of it all that I lost my focus. That’s good for me, because it means I can blame my critical failing on the movie itself. Take that, Benjamin.

I ought to consider the word “magic” a bit further. There’s a hazy, magical quality to just about every shot in this film. It’s a weird tale, the sort of thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Ray Bradbury anthology (albeit with more talking penises,) so it adopts a bit of that fantastical touch well. I think it’s perfectly appropriate — and a delight just to watch — since the story is more fable than Americana. It’s not a F. Scott Fitzgerald piece anymore; it’s a steady look at a string of failures, both interpersonal and subjective, with an ambiguous but undeniably present moral. Actually, that still sounds a lot like Fitzgerald. Chalk another point up to Roth for maintaining the literary quality of the story while making it his own.

I apologize if my tone turned all maudlin too often, here, but the content of the film encourages just such wispy contemplation. However, I’m not convinced it does much good. Benjamin Button has no pretense for or shame about what it is, which does little to engage the brain after the emotional connection has worn off. Yes, it is a story told with admirable restraint and pacing, but it is not a complex one. Time moves on, tragedy moves on at the same pace. Love ought to precede loss; loss will come without your intervention, while love requires your effort.

And then the meditation ends. I’m grateful to Fincher and Roth for telling their story so well, but it’s a vehicle for truisms, and I don’t anticipate them sticking with me. And the weirdest thing? I’m kind of sad about that. Not that there aren’t qualities that I’m going to continue to admire; Benjamin Button carries exquisite tone, look, and feel, but in my memory it’s not much more than a stirring drone, and a picture in monochrome.

The Package

Here we go! This is a Criterion release, so in addition to a lovingly-crafted disc in technical regards, you also get a raft of valuable and informative bonus features, such as:

Full commentary with David Fincher. Fincher is a terrific speaker, and takes a more analytical approach to his film than most commentators I’ve had the privilege of listening to.

Quality interviews with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, which get much deeper than the usual marketing fluff.

A lengthy feature on the subtly-integrated visual effects and makeup, as well as a feature on the motion-capture techniques used to adapt Brad Pitt’s performance to the bodies used for Benjamin’s younger, decrepit days.

A little bit about Fincher’s on-set habits and methods, which are interesting to watch but not particularly enlightening.

An interview with composer Alexandre Desplat regarding the film’s score, which is just about as subtle as the makeup and visual effects when considered with the film as a whole. This was probably the most interesting feature on the second disc, for me, because of Desplat’s humility in the face of plain examples of how much his contribution solidified the film.

A bevy of smaller featurettes about pre-production, with sketches, storyboards, art direction designs, costuming, and more. Along with these are a few galleries, covering from pre-production to post-production.

Finally, the insert contains an essay on the film by critic Kent Jones. It’s a well-considered essay, from a dude who is smarter than me.

That’s it! Two discs, a curiosity of a film, and enough historical context to make you an expert. I love Criterion releases.

7 out of 10