For Tim Burton (1988's "Beetlejuice," 1990's "Edward Scissorhands"),
one of the most distinctively visionary filmmakers of modern times,
"Big Fish" comes as something of a departure for him. While it retains
Burton's signature look and style, it is set within the confines of
the real world. Where its more fantastical elements come in is through
the embellished stories Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) tells of his own
life. As such, "Big Fish" is a marvel of bewitching storytelling that
smoothly interweaves a reality-based present with a more fantasy-oriented
past. Its only disappointment is that the undeniable imagination brought
to Ed's tall tales isn't pushed even further.
When word comes that his father, Ed, has suffered a stroke and is
without much time to live, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) returns to his
hometown to offer support to his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange). Will
has been estranged from his father for several years, something he
believes stems from Ed's tendency to tell alleged lies rather than
speak the truth about his feelings. As Will gets up the courage to
make amends with his dad, Ed's extraordinary stories about his past
come to the forefront.
As a young man, Ed (Ewan McGregor) instantly fell in love with Sandra
the moment he saw her at a circus. He also encountered a peculiar
town where no one who visited ever left; a good-hearted giant; a witch
(Helena Bonham Carter) who became something of his guardian angel;
Siamese twins with only two legs; a mermaid; a short-lived stint in
World War II; and a very big fish.
Written with care and intimacy by John August (2000's "Charlie's Angels"),
one suspects while watching "Big Fish" that it may be Tim Burton's
most personal film to date. It is not his best (although it is a major
step up from 2001's "Planet of the Apes"), but there is a truth to
what Burton has to say here that cannot be denied. Everyone has elder
family members who are constantly telling the stories of their past,
so much that you begin to wonder what is and isn't true. Minor exaggerations
aside, Burton's central pondering is what if these supposed fabrications
were, in fact, real? After all, fact is often stranger than fiction.
The elongated flashbacks ar e its best segments, a veritable treasure
trove of unusual and always creative sights and ideas. Ewan McGregor
(2003's "Down with Love") is so endearing and good-natured as the
younger Ed Bloom that he very easily acts as the viewer's guide through
his life. The enchanting production design by Dennis Gassner (2002's
"Road to Perdition") also plays a major role, vibrantly bringing to
life the various settings, from a dark, threatening forest, to a traveling
circus (with a very funny Danny DeVito as the ringleader), to the
Mayberry-like town where everyone is happy and nobody wishes to step
outside of. So exquisitely rendered are these interludes that it's
a shame there aren't even more of them.
The present-day scenes are less developed and so rooted in reality
that they naturally pale in comparison. The troubled father-son bond
betwe en Ed and Will finds satisfying emotional closure by the end,
but the pivotal romance between Ed and Sandra doesn't quite hold the
weight that it deserved. As the younger Sandra, Alison Lohman (2003's
"Matchstick Men") is underused, but appropriately angelic. She is
also a highly convincing as the young counterpart of Jessica Lange
(1999's "Titus"), who is given a couple, but not enough, quietly touching
moments. Albert Finney (2000's "Traffic"), as the elder Ed, and Billy
Crudup (2000's "Almost Famous"), as adult son Will, do a good job
of fulfilling their role requirements, but not much more.
"Big Fish" is a big-screen entertainment that has its extraordinary
quirks and offbeat elements, but features accessible themes that wide
audiences will be able to relate to and get involved in. And along
with the end of "Edward Scissorhands," the final scenes of "Big Fish"
rank as the most powerful and accomplished that Tim Burton has ever
filmed. They are simply beautiful, not only aesthetically but also
humanistically, elevating a good picture up to the ranks of being
a very, very good one. "Big Fish" has heart and it has originality,
but its greatest attribute of all is its pure honesty.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman