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Big Fish

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Big Fish

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney
Director: Tim Burton
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 125 Minutes
Release Date: January 2004
Genres: Comedy, Drama

*Also starring: Alison Lohman, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Steve Buscemi, Helena Bonham Carter, Brandon Carroll, Destiny Miley Cyrus, Matthew McGrory, Mark McWhorter, Missi Pyle

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

TV has been around for only three generations and movies for five. That leaves tens of thousands of generations that depended on story-telling for passing on the myths of the various cultures and to enable fathers and sons, sometimes mothers and daughters to bond. The little one would stay in bed and beg daddy to read from the good books, or even better to relate tales of daddy's own childhood, which is all to the good. While there is still some of this ancient entertainment going around for example I regularly see moms and little girls and boys in the Barnes and Noble children's room showing their tots the pictures and reading the wonderful classics like "The Wizard of Oz" I can't help looking with regret at how the story-tellers on television, kids glued to the tube sometimes on the sets in their own rooms are actually causing more alienation between the generations.

In "Big Fish," the contemporary parents and a recently-married young man presumably have TV's in their homes. What's significant, though, is that the tales, often taller than they are truthful, are still being related and passed down from one man to many others in the greater family. The ironic difference is that the elderly father's palaver has been creating a schism rather than a bond, the young man so filled with his dad's largely false anecdotes about the latter's youth that he never really got to know the old man. As Edward Bloom (the old man played by Albert Finney) tells his young 'un, William Bloom (Billy Crudup), their relationship is like an iceberg. Ninety percent is underwater and unable to be seen and accessed, only ten percent is visible. Old Ed is given to stories that his son has heard over and over, particularly one about the giant catfish that ate Ed's wedding band and required him to snatch the fish in his hands and shake the ring from its mouth.

As the twenty-something William, now married to someone he met in Paris while working for a global press outfit, gets increasingly frustrated, Edward, now dying of cancer and remaining in bed throughout the film banters on and on, each story different from the others, but all the characters destined to meet at the conclusion whether metaphorically or physically is unimportant.

Edward's stories may remind you of Walter Mitty fantasies given a surreal treatment in Norman Z. McLeod's 1947 comedy about a milquetoast who imagines greatness, but even more about Robert Zemeckis's 1994 film "Forrest Gump," about a mentally challenged fellow who, without realizing much, is put into a variety of backdrops and real-life events. Yet Edward Bloom is neither milquetoast nor brain-damaged: simply a man who has always told tales with great charm while paradoxically keeping his son at arm's length, never revealing the real Edward Bloom but only the hyperbolic one.

Director Tim Burton, who splashes the big screen with surreal images, is in his element. The regisseur of such imaginative movies as "Sleepy Hollow" (about a bumbling constable who tries to use scientific methods to figure out a series of beheadings) and "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (a Pumpkin King tires of the old routine in Halloween Town and falls in love with Christmas) displays the likes of ol' Edward, recast in the stories decades earlier in a role played by Ewan McGregor as the ultimate Mr. Clean. In his youth, we're to believe that he indentured himself to a circus impresario (Danny De Vito) in return for the boss' willingness to reveal one new fact about the woman of Edward's dreams, Sandy Bloom (Alison Lohman), so that in due time Edward would get to propose to the woman he had never spoken to. Few movies about love at first sight are so elaborately constructed as this one, which allows Edward to call florists across a wide area to send daffodils, Sandy's favorite flower, to the grounds of Sandy's college dorm.

The inventiveness of this Edward knows few bounds. He even parachuted into Korea during the war 1950-53, defeated two North Korean guards in the dark, and ran away to America with twin singers. The story of the huge catfish that ate Edward's golden wedding band only to spit it out after being violently jostled by the fisherman may have been inspired by the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. All of this is by way of Burton's conveying, via John August's adaptation of Daniel Wallace's book, "Big Fish, A Novel of Mythic Proportions," that stories from the Bible, the Koran, presumably the Bhagavad Gita and The Book of Zoroaster, are myths somehow essential to pass down through the generations to bind each to the others.

"Big Fish," whose ensemble includes Steve Buscemi as the leading poet of a small Alabama town who turns bank robber (filmed near Montgomery in Wetumpka); Jessica Lange as Sandy, the wife of the dying man who was allegedly courted in an all-out campaign decades earlier; Helena Bonham Carter as the grown woman whom young Edward knew when she was a little girl in a town that proved to be too small for his dreams; and Billy Crudup as the guy wanting to know more about his dad before the latter would son die but who realizes that the stories he heard, however embellished, really do identify the man whose dreams were too small to fit in a sleepy, Central Alabama ville. "Big Fish" is a lovely tale, heightened by a surrealism in short supply in the movie theaters this summer, an ode to the inevitable bond existing not only between people of diverse interests but between folks of different generations as far back as we can imagine.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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