When The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was initially released I'll admit it left me somewhat unimpressed. So it's strange how much I liked the DVD, and it's even stranger that I'm hopeful you'll check out the Criterion Blu-ray edition. What caused this amazing transformation? Why was the big-screen version less than ideal while the Criterion treatment is lovely? Let's get into exactly that.
First off, this is a must-see for any fan of filmmaking. David Fincher is one of the most compelling guys alive in terms of entertainment value. Some directors can only direct ... but Fincher is so tuned into his own process that he makes his commentary tracks enlightening and enthralling. I could listen to him for hours, which is good, because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button clocks in at around three of them. He's an extremely funny fellow, but he's also tapped into whatever the vocal tricks are that make someone a hypnotic yarn-teller. Hearing his take on events is just plain better than your average director. He's comically gifted and self-effacing to boot. For instance, in one of his initial meetings with the producers, when asked how he'd handle the character-aging-backward CGI he tosses off:
"Having come from an Industrial Light & Magic background I knew the best thing to do was lie. So I told them that was the least of their worries."
But the man has range, too; his recollection of the day his father died is both touching and profound. Then you weave in those Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans elements and it's easy to see why Benjamin Button struck such a dark, moody pose.
The discs are also worth watching if you're curious as to just how difficult the project was. The gang had a budget of $150 million, but the attention to detail is still nothing less than spectacular. It's also engaging to see how others view Fincher, with his multiple takes and constant OCD. I'm often struck that the same person also directed Fight Club and Zodiac; the level of mind that sort of range must take is astounding. So it's nice to watch Fincher at work, in much the same way it would be interesting to watch the sculpting of David or the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
Technically, the transfer is fantastic. The film looks excellent, and the Criterion interface remains the best in the business. Toggling the commentary on and off is simple, and it's a wonder that more DVDs don't reach this level of intuitiveness. Sure, I realize there's a higher cost associated with Criterion's methods, but many of their add-ons aren't so much flashy as they are well thought out. Why wouldn't I want a menu that toggles even when the DVD is playing? It seems extremely obvious but only Criterion has mastered it. In my world they'd get the rights to every Best Picture nominee. They put out products that matter, so we should give them the films that are deemed important.
If you've got a Blu-ray player give at least the second disc a rental. It tracks the 20 years of pre-production all the way up to the release of the film. It's an incredible look at the inner-workings of Hollywood. If you're a young screenwriter you owe yourself the knowledge held within; the idea that even if you're having meetings with Steven Spielberg you still might not see your movie come to fruition for a few decades. While I still don't love the movie itself, after viewing this two-disc set I find myself very sympathetic to the process. These guys and gals did it the right way, their motives were pure, their intellect was solid, and all the elements were in place to make something beautiful. To me that's a story worth learning about, even if it's just considered an "extra."
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Criterion Blu-ray is available now from Paramount Pictures.