Big Fish  (2003)


Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, Alison Lohman
Directors: Tim Burton

Rating: PG-13

Studio: Columbia

Release Date: 12.10.03

Review Posted: 12.10.03

Spoilers: Minor


By Sara M. Fetters


Nothing Fishy About It – "Big Fish" is a Classic


No matter what you think about each film in his body of work, director Tim Burton is still an unquestionable visionary. From rather rote studio work like 2001’s “Planet of the Apes” remake to personal idiosyncratic classics like “Edward Scissorhands,” Burton is one of the few directors working in the Hollywood system that puts an indelible stamp on every project. Many times, the more personal the stamp the better the movie turns out (“Mars Attacks!” being a rare example when this isn’t the case), this director having uncanny ability to make almost every frame unquestionably his own.


This is definitely the case with Burton’s latest, the whimsical family adventure “Big Fish.” The story of Edward Bloom, played winningly by both Ewan McGregor as a young man and then by Albert Finney in his later years, this is a tale that lovingly treads the fertile ground of parent/child relations. In this case, it is the timeworn caveat of how parent’s – especially father’s relating to their sons – can color their history in far broader strokes than the actual reality, making themselves seem far more important or inspirational in the child’s eyes.


As we grow older, we understand that these little white lies, this expansion of the truth, tells just as much about our parents as the actual non fiction-aided history does. While watching “Big Fish,” I recalled a story my mother loved – loves – to tell about my mechanic father, and how he once lifted up an entire block engine, catching it in mid-freefall before it smashed a couple of co-workers. The reality wasn’t as colorful. While my father did stop the engine from smooshing the mechanics, two still-intact chains connected to the hoist holding the engine assisted him. You see it was the third chain that snapped, sending the bulky car component toppling down upon them. And while he did in fact stop the engine from doing any damage t, it wasn’t like he didn’t have any help supporting the several hundred pound item.


But, as a child, this story only made my father seem even more important to me, even more the superman I already believed him to be. Years later, knowing the truth, this story now tells me just as much about my mother and how she saw – sees – my father. To her, this is a man willing to put his own safety at risk to help others, willing to use every last ounce of strength in his body to make that come to pass. It was this feeling, this belief, she wanted to pass on, and by subtly expanding the truth of the story she did just that.


The unfortunate side effect to all this, of course, is that in telling tall tales there is the potential children are not quite going to ever get a good feel for whom the person relating it really is. That their essence, those unequivocal singularities that make us who we are, will continue to remain unclear unless the honest and truthful history is presented. That’s exactly how young reporter Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) feels. All his father’s tales have left him feeling an uneasy distance from Edward and, when suddenly faced with dad on his deathbed and a first child of his own on the way, Will cannot help but want a chance to finally know who his father really was.


It is easy to see why the journalist has so much trouble relating to his dad. When it comes to telling fish tales, traveling salesman Edward Bloom is the undisputed king. From stories of a gentle giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), to a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) whose glass eye is a window to one’s future death, to a circus ran by a rather lycanthropic ringmaster (Danny DeVito), the senior Bloom has a story to tell about almost everything. In the end, though, nearly every one of these narratives revolves around Edward’s love for his luminous wife Sandra (played by Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange), and the outlandish means it took to win her hand. It is their story, their love, that is the heart of “Big Fish,” and it is that tale Will longs to know before his own child is born.


Based on the acclaimed novel Big Fish, A Story of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace, Burton and “Go” screenwriter John August have a crafted a timeless film about history and family that transcends the mystical magic realism which so easily could have dipped it into schmaltz. In Burton’s surrealistic world, the time and tales of Edward Bloom are every bit as real as the historical facts we dot social studies books with. It is this matter-of-factness, this definitive intrepidity to all of Edward’s stories, which carries the film from start to finish and makes it so effecting.


These tales are told with such veracity it is much more difficult than it should be to sort fact from fiction. Sure, I can discount a Mustang traveling through a flooded road and landing atop a bedraggled tree, but what about some of the rest? Did Edward really land behind enemy Korean lines, liberating not only some secret documents but also a scandalously sexy pair of singing conjoined twins? Or how about creating a sea of bright yellow daffodils in a sorority common area for love of his life Sandra? And then there is the town of Spectre, a seemingly mystical place of serendipitous tranquility that can only exist dreams. But when Edward seemingly saves it from ruination, there must be more fact to that dream than first imagined.


In a movie like this, no amount of technical wonderment can survive actors not up to the task. Always one to cast exceedingly well – “Planet of the Apes” and blank slate Mark Whalberg aside – Burton has populated his film with faces more than up to the cast. Both Lange and Lohman are perfect as Edward’s one true love Sandra, especially considering the woman is written more as a symbol than an actual person. It’s tough position to be in for an actress, yet both nail it, each having a scene of utmost sincerity and genuine human emotion that’s deeply affecting.


But their plight is nothing compared to the one faced by Crudup. For the first half of the movie, his character is nothing more than a sieve for the rest of “Big Fish” to slip through. Whereas everyone else has a trait of one sort or another that makes them jump out, Will is really nothing more than a blank slate, a cipher for Finney to bounce his joviality off of. But then something magical happens; Will becomes a bit more proactive and actively starts searching out the places his father’s stories come from, and Crudup comes to life. Not that I want to make it sound like he wasn’t giving a good performance beforehand, it is just that his reasoning for keeping the character a bit more closed off and closeted suddenly becomes clear, the “Almost Famous” actor suddenly taking charge to be the surprise dynamic center to the picture.


The rest of the supporting cast is uniformly excellent in their bit parts. Most notably, Carter is quite touching in her own dual role, quietly bringing about both tears and smiles as she sheds light on more of what makes Edward tick. I also adored French actress Marion Cotillard as Will’s pregnant wife Josephine. She brings just the right touch of warmth and open compassion to the proceedings, finding the perfect balance between empathy and antagonism towards her husband’s quest. Then there are sisters Ada and Arlene Tai as conjoined chanteuses Ping and Jing. They can’t help but make an indelible impression, Burton’s slow reveal of the duo on stage one for the ages.


Of course, there would be no movie without McGregor and Finney. Not only are both outstanding, they somehow find an amazing symmetry between their two performances that’s truly something. I believed that one grew up to be the other, so easy to see McGregor’s wide-eyed innocence morph effortlessly into Finney’s happy meditation at living a life so well. It’s a tag-team effort between the duo, and I am not entirely sure I’ve ever seen anything like it on film before. In the end, it is impossible to think of one without the other, both so integral to the other that it would be blasphemous to imagine them anywhere else.


It goes without saying Burton achieves technical brilliance throughout “Big Fish” second to none. From Danny Elfman’s score to Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography to Coleen Atwood’s pristine costumes, the director knows how to get the best out of his craftsmen. But it is Academy Award-winning production designer Dennis Gassner’s work that really stands out. Not only did he create the effulgently conceived worlds that populate Edward’s stories, but he also brings to life the almost humdrum suburban every-land much of the movie takes place in. Even better, he masterfully reconceives everything as the picture goes along, letting the fiction of Edward’s stories slowly ebb away into their actual modern-day reality.


But this is Burton’s film all the way, and it is his majestic imagination that really makes everything soar. This is a director working at the top of his game, making “Big Fish” come to life in soaringly impressionistic fashion. In the end, Burton manages to do what so few dramas can – earn their tears honestly and with intelligence. No blatant pulling of the heartstrings, no brass band spelling things out with a rendition of Taps; this a three-hankie movie that remembers to treat its audience with discerning understanding. And as the final images resplendently swim away, I couldn’t help but think of my own life, my own parents. “Big Fish” taps into the bonds of family like no other film this year. It is a surrealistic masterpiece, Burton crafting an Oscar-worthy classic to stand the test of time.


Rating: ęęęę  (out of 4)





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