Big Fish

January, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Tim Burton

Starring:Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito

Director Tim Burton, (Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow) started his career in movies as an animator for the Disney studios, which probably goes a long way in explaining his taste for, (and ability at) filmed chimera. His latest effort, adapted from a novel by Daniel Wallace, takes a leisurely, fantastical look at the life of Ed Bloom, (Albert Finney) a small-town southern boy with an engaging appetite for life and a predilection for telling tall tales that makes him a cherished friend to everyone except his son, who resents his father's traveling-salesman lifestyle and casual way with the truth. 

Son Will, (Billy Crudup) sees his Dad as a distant and rather pathetic figure, only interested in impressing people with stories from his peripatetic career as carnival roustabout, war hero, and salesman extraordinaire that lack in veracity what they abundantly provide in excitement. 

When Will learns that his Dad is dying of cancer, he leaves his job as a reporter in Paris, gathers up his very pregnant wife, and returns home to Alabama where his mother (Jessica Lange) implores him to finally come to terms with his father's rambling ways and loose grip on reality.  Having lionized his father as a youngster, Will now wants to force his declining "old man" to finally admit he's only been life-sized all along.

Burton chooses to tell this story by alternating the story elements outlined above, (which unfold in the present) with idealized/fantasized scenes from Ed's life as he's spun it out over the years. Thus, Ewan McGregor portrays Ed as a young man and Alison Lohman plays Sandra, the young woman young Bloom first glimpses at a circus performance and then pursues through her years as a student at Auburn. Along the way to winning his bride, fathering a son and acquiring his dream house with a white picket fence, Ed confronts a witch, stars in high school sports, meets and manages the career of a giant, parachutes into enemy territory to meet with Asian Siamese twins and participates in a Texas bank robbery with a long-lost Southern poet; beguiling, to be sure-but how much is honest and how much is hype?

There's a definite sweetness to Burton's style in delivering this material, treating his hero with a pleasant mixture of mock-seriousness and affection, all wrapped up in the kind of wizardry moviegoers have come to expect from the man that has presented so many visual marvels in his previous films. But their success flowed from a deep and serious commitment to admitted make-believe; when the director attempts, as he does here, to alternate Bloom's real world of the present with his imaginary one of the past, the audience is torn between allowing itself to get caught up in Ed's actual story or his richer, but invented one. Fantasy interruptus; not a wise choice for a movie that tries to sum up it's leading character's life with the conversion of his son to his father's point of view. 

Despite several lovely performances, (Lange, and Crudup in particular) Fish also suffers--for American audiences with some knowledge of the South at least--from the most bizarre casting of its two other male leads; why on earth hire two Brits, however talented, to portray the quintessential Southern good 'ole boy? McGregor doesn't have the skills in accent or style to pull it off with any credibility, and Finney, grandmaster that he is, simply won't wash as a guy in his sixties whose life story is so tightly bound up in mid-twentieth century Alabama.  

The message of Fish--to live life as fully as absolutely possible, even if much of that requires playing fast and loose with the more mundane elements of life, finally goes aground on the reef of Bloom's character; despite Finney's best efforts to glamorize it, Bloom's saga just isn't that compelling, whether it's being presented as elaborate & imaginative fantasy or hard-nosed fact. A pleasant-enough life for a pleasant-enough guy? Yes, but Burton's obviously seeking a bigger fish in this tall tale, and truth to tell, it simply got away….  

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