Luhrmann, Fincher dream big

'Benjamin Button,' 'Australia' take important risks

They are anomalies. Jumbo-sized anomalies.

At a moment when belt-tightening is the order of the day, “Australia” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” reflect grandiose creative appetites and lavish visions. And we should be grateful for them.

Hollywood may be cutting jobs and pinching pennies, but Baz Luhrmann and David Fincher are going for broke, sparing nothing in their pursuit of the sort of “big sagas” that characterized a bygone epoch.

Between the two films, the price tags for production and marketing worldwide could well surpass half a billion dollars. This is not a moment for weak stomachs, because neither film represents an “easy sell.”

Baz Luhrmann’s film deliberately criss-crossed over many cinematic territories — it’s a John Wayne western in sections, a war film in others, its mood shifting from high comedy to drama. Luhrmann was raised on a diet of old Hollywood movies and his work reflects this passion.

His movie was delivered only a week ago, so there was little room for advance screenings and strategic promotion. Fox opens the movie very wide this week, its TV-heavy campaign pitching it as a male-oriented action film.

And though Luhrmann is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, Fox surprisingly has remained aloof from any significant effort to pick up any nominations.

If the filmmaker felt he was making a grand saga — a sort of Australian “Gone With the Wind” — the “sell” does not reflect that ambition.

“Benjamin Button” faces an entirely different challenge stemming from its uniqueness. Its basic story cannot be conveyed in a single, reasonably lucid sentence.

Paramount, whose production costs totaled roughly $150 million, is pitching “Button” as an event movie. Brad Pitt, its star, did his turn on Oprah, will attend a splashy opening in New Orleans (where much of the film is set) and seems to be doing more promotion than the press-shy actor usually participates in. The irony is that Pitt is rarely Pitt in the film itself — he is a decrepit old Pitt who becomes over time a young Pitt, but is rarely the “movie star” Pitt.

If “Button” resembles any past film in structure, it is closest to “Forrest Gump” (which stems from the same screenwriter, Eric Roth). And as with “Gump,” Paramount is hoping for its share of Oscar and Globe nominations.

Competing for critics’ attention, of course, will also be an abundance of modestly-budgeted specialty films such as “Doubt,” “Frost/Nixon” and “Slumdog Millionaire” as well as an array of superstar titles, such as “Valkyrie” (Tom Cruise) and “Seven Pounds” (Will Smith).

The two weeks surrounding Christmas provide movie marketers with a magic corridor — one that even surpasses summer. This year, the corridor seems more crowded than ever.

The end result, however, may produce one surprise: Box office will likely surpass last year’s totals. Even as the global congloms that own the studios cry poverty and cut jobs, the folks out there continue to line up at the box offices.

The congloms may be faltering, but the movies per se are doing fine. Even the two big ones with grandiose visions.

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