Star-Struck Reviewer

by Phil Boatwright

I was somewhat star stuck at the recent press junket for Brad Pitt’s new movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a fantasy/drama about a man who ages backwards.  No, not at meeting Brad Pitt.  He wasn’t even there.  He gets to pick and choose the promotional venues he will attend, and he passed on this one.  Forgive me for this, but attending a press interview for a movie starring Brad Pitt, with no Brad Pitt, was the pits.   I was, however, impressed by meeting Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

If those names sound vaguely familiar, that’s because you’ve seen them in movie credits for some pretty spectacular movies, among them three of the highest-grossing films in motion picture history - E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and The Sixth Sense.

They were also responsible for bringing Seabiscuit, the blockbuster Bourne trilogy, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and The Spiderwick Chronicles to movie screens.  In 1982, Kathleen Kennedy co-founded Amblin Entertainment with Spielberg and her husband, Frank Marshall, for which she produced or executive-produced dozens of films, including Hook,  Always, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Goonies, Innerspace, Joe Versus the Volcano, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Cape Fear, and Arachnophobia, in which Frank Marshall made his directorial debut in 1990.

Kennedy also teamed with Spielberg, Marshall and Quincy Jones to produce The Color Purple, which earned eleven Academy Award® nominations in 1985, including Best Picture; and with Spielberg and Marshall on 1985’s highest-grossing film, Back to the Future, as well as its two successful sequels – Back to the Future, Part II and Back to the Future, Part III.

You beginning to get why I was star struck?

But the list doesn’t stop there.  This producing twosome were also involved with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s ListSchindler’s List!  Wow.

Frank Marshall began his motion picture career as assistant to Peter Bogdanovich on the director’s cult classic Targets, I believe that being the last film featuring Boris Karloff.  Marshall was then asked by Bogdanovich to serve as location manager for The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? before graduating to associate producer on the filmmaker’s next five movies, including Paper Moon and Nickelodeon.

These two have worked with just about everyone. Marshall was even a line producer for Orson Welles’s legendary unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind. Orson Welles, folks!  The guy worked with Orson Welles!!

From that list, which is only partial, you can see that these are two Hollywood luminaries who have managed to light up the world with films that entertained, taught, and inspired.  And even when some of their efforts contained content that raised the eyebrows of Sunday School teachers, the material was always presented in a thoughtful manner.  They’ve never been exploitive. Rather, they have always given filmgoers subjects to discuss.

And now, Kennedy and Marshall are a part of one of the best films of 2008.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was taken from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was inspired by a quote by Mark Twain: “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.”

While there is some adult subject matter, including an adulterous affair and the implying of sex outside marriage, it is infused with the pro-life message that each life has value, and a religious philosophy pronounced by caring of the abandoned baby by a Christian woman who nurtures this unwanted child. She calls the baby a child of God and then proceeds to spend her own life behaving like one.

As with most productions made by the team of Kennedy and Marshall, Curious Case is infused with mesmerizing storytelling.  Though the CGI ingenuity plays an important role in the success of bringing the book to cinematic life, and while it is hard to imagine any other film winning the makeup and special effects categories during the Oscar telecast this coming year, the filmmakers see to it that these extra special effects contribute to the drama rather than overshadow it.  Despite the film’s length, almost no one at the screening left for concessions or bathroom breaks.  They were hooked by something they seldom see – involving storytelling that balances epic adventure with deeply personal narrative.  Viewers were involved because what affects this extraordinary character also affects them – the magic of life.

While Benjamin’s predicament is entirely peculiar, his journey highlights the complex emotions at the core of every life.  “It touches on questions we ask ourselves over the course of a lifetime,” says Marshall.  “And it’s rare that one movie will elicit so many different, personal points of view.  Someone in their sixties or seventies will look at the movie one way, while someone who’s 20 is going to see it another way.”

Making the movie would be an ambitious jump, posing dramatic as well as technical challenges.  “How do you deftly and succinctly create the experience of a life, with all its dips and peaks, from grave to cradle, within a single film?” muses Kennedy.  “In Eric’s [Eric Roth] script, each moment accrues emotions that resonate with you later on.  Cheating that sensibility would diminish the experience, so we knew from the beginning that it would take time to project the experience of a whole life.”

During a fairly intimate questioning period with Kennedy and Marshall, their eyes sparkled when I mentioned I had just purchased the Jurassic Park collection for my nephew (I’m uncle of the year).  I was secretly delighted that for one brief moment, I had the attention of two people who helped make Schlindler’s List.  I’ve seen far too many entertainment reporters become blasé and cynical about meeting Hollywood royalty.  Guess I’m still not one of them.