Big Fish (2003)

1969-12-31 (Limited release)

Tim Burton’s Big Fish is, like many 2003 films, a movie about itself and its own storytelling. And, as with most stories, the key is in the teller’s flair. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has this in abundance, evident in his Burtonesque fantasies, starring Ewan McGregor as the young Edward, a traveling salesman.

His son estranged William (Bill Crudup) is, however, disgusted with his father’s self-centered embellishments and frequent absences during William’s formative years. When he comes to see his dying father, seeking reconciliation, or at least explanation for Edward’s seeming self-centeredness, he finds himself again captive audience for still more tales. Unfortunately, the movie barely gives us a glimpse of William’s wounded childhood, and, as Crudup is too intelligently restrained an actor to resort to abandoned-child histrionics, some of these screenplay gaps aren’t quite filled. It’s hard to sympathize with the protagonists.

That said, McGregor goes a long way toward inspiring sympathy for Edward. Effectively combining his personas from Down with Love (“man’s man” Catcher Block and astronaut Zip Martin), McGregor is a thinking person’s movie star, amiable and clever. With Big Fish, he continues on a career path of almost confounding brilliance. His young adventurer is less obviously an outsider than Burton’s other Edwards (Scissorhands and Wood), but equally filled with a winning sense of wonder. McGregor responds enthusiastically to Burton’s vision of life as a skewed fairy tale.

Those who complain that this vision is too heavily visual, that Burton’s style surpasses his story sense, may find this movie’s focus on the very idea of a “good story” a bit ironic. Others are calling Big Fish the director’s most “personal” film. But it seems to me that Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), and even Batman Returns (1992) are all pretty personal projects, stemming from Burton’s genuine affection and sympathy for unconventional subjects and the lives they lead. It’s also worth noting that many of Burton’s films are interpretations of characters and stories both popular and obscure: the adventures of Batman, the legend of Sleepy Hollow, sci-fi B-movies, and (less successfully) man’s confrontation with those damn dirty apes.

In terms of structure and construction, Big Fish is as typical of the Tim Burton style as anything he’s done, but pitched over a range of scales and sizes, maximizing its emotional impact. The fanciful episodes of Edward’s life may actually be more overtly childlike than Burton’s previous reveries; these include a friendly giant (Matthew McGrory), a ringmaster with a secret (Danny DeVito), a self-deluding poet (Steve Buscemi), a witch (Helena Bonham Carter), conjoined twins whom he meets during the Korean War, and his own infinitely patient wife, played by Jessica Lange opposite Finney, and Alison Lohman (looking uncannily like Lange) opposite McGregor.

For all these delights, the film provides one of Burton’s most complex characters in Edward, in particular, in the contrast embodied by Finney and McGregor. Indeed, contrasts are the thematic heart of Big Fish. The tale-spinning elder is certainly a familiar figure, but many of Bloom’s stories (originated in the Daniel Wallace novel, adapted here by John August) are wonderfully strange: his journeys are almost parodic, they’re so outrageous, but entertainment is sincere. What starts out jokily mythic turns inward, and intimately moving, as the film synthesizes the fantastic and the “real,” the broad and the specific. The movie culminates with a beautifully directed sequence that recalls, oddly and pleasurably, both Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry.

As Big Fish is gothic of the Southern variety, it lacks the director’s usual Hammer-horror aesthetic; this is a movie without much blood, and no guts at all. This soft-focus Burton takes a little getting used to, and I could’ve done with a few more touches like that witch, whose glass eye shows you your death. But there are wondrous scenes here, from large-scale (Edward’s time-stopping visit to the circus) to small (a lovely moment between Finney and Lange in a bathtub). This is a movie of charming images and exhilarating imagination, a “maturation” that doesn’t feel like a betrayal or a sentimentalization of Burton’s earlier best instincts. Big Fish passes a major storytelling test: I can’t wait to see it again.

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