Big Fish (review)

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Tales to Tell

(Best of 2003)

I love Tim Burton’s films, even when they’re not great. I love his unflinching weirdness. I love that he’ll take a chance and go the extra mile of excessiveness even if he fails half the time to take us along, because when he succeeds, it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. I love all the baroque curlicues — visual and intellectual and humorous — of his vision. I love that even for all the diversity among his films, there’s no mistaking them for the work of anyone else, and that’s a rare thing among film directors. So even when his films aren’t great, they’re always interesting… sometimes not in a good way, it’s true. But I can respect an artist who pushes boundaries of one sort or another and fails far more than one who always takes the safe road.

I say I love Burton’s films even when they’re not great — for every out-and-out disaster like Planet of the Apes, there’s a compelling mess like Sleepy Hollow or a pretty-darn-close-to-great Edward Scissorhands — but the truth is that maybe he hasn’t made a truly great film… until now. Big Fish is the film you feel he’s been leading up to all this time, both more and less metaphoric, expanding his standard “agony of the outsider” theme to an alienation, a despair that even the most happily conventional and contentedly well-adjusted — not terms that usually apply to either Burton’s protagonists or his core audience — could identify with, and shrinking it down into one thorny relationship between a father and son who’ve never seen eye to eye nor heart to heart. And somehow, the triumph here, the simple victory of finally appreciating someone loved but never fathomed, is sweeter and tangier than anything Burton’s explored before because it’s the kind of awareness all of us crave: to understand the frustratingly impenetrable people in our lives.

Edward Bloom is a teller of preposterous and charming tall tales that delight everyone he knows… except his grown son, William (Billy Crudup: Charlotte Gray, World Traveler), who escaped their small Alabama town and his father’s shadow — Edward is indeed a big fish in his little pond of a town — for distant Paris. But when Edward (Albert Finney: Traffic, Erin Brockovich) falls ill and William returns home, the younger man finally makes a determined attempt to get to know the father who’s always distanced himself with his outrageous stories. At least, William has felt that the stories were a way for father to keep son from ever really getting inside his shell. The truth is… well, both more and less than William can imagine.

The oft-told stories unwind again for William — his wife, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), has never heard them, and Edward’s wife, Sandy (Jessica Lange), never tires of them — and now he’s determined to pick through their unlikeliness for any fact in them. Did Edward — played by Ewan McGregor (Down with Love, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) as a larkish rascal of a young man, a delightful counterpoint to Finney’s harder, tireder, fading spirit — really rescue a giant, join the circus, parachute behind enemy lines, confront a witch, discover a secret paradise, and charm the biggest catfish Alabama has ever seen? The absurdity of the tales is manifest, the magic of them undeniable, and William’s exasperation with them thoroughly reasonable. We want them to be true, we know they can’t be, and how it all unravels turns out to be a reminder of what a mix of patience, trust, and happy, welcome delusion makes up a relationship.

Twisting perspective and playing with concepts of cause and effect, Burton — John August (Charlie’s Angels, Go) crafted the screenplay from Daniel Wallace’s novel — is at his most sophisticated here, limning what you could call “the adventure of a lifetime.” Not the short period of grand adventure that comes along once in a lifetime, but the grand adventure that is a life, the feat of simply living — really living — in the world. And as big as it is, in some ways — spanning the world from Southeast Asia to the American South — Big Fish really is Burton’s “little” film, and a lovely one at that, touchingly soulful and more warmly engaging in its weirdness than his other films have been. And, in the end, when you realize that it’s about the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, you walk out of Big Fish treading on air and seeing all the enchanting oddness in the everyday everythings all around you.

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