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Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)
With a stellar cast, a plum December release date, and the exciting promised oxymoron of a mature Tim Burton film, it would be tough for any cinephile to not eagerly anticipate the arrival of Big Fish. Unfortunately, the results make its prerelease promise feel more like the one that got away. If Big Fish is to be taken as a deliberate stab at escaping his image as a wunderkind, it disappoints. Maturity to Burton seems to mean having to make excuses for his flights of fancy instead of the expected opposite. My idea of a mature Burton film would consist of an undiluted, unapologetic stream of his creations instead of a toned down, overly coy procession wrapped up in a mawkish family drama that’s meant to justify the tall tales we hear.
From the its opening, which presents a quirky fishing story and clunky expositional narration courtesy of the storyteller’s son, Big Fish moves along a predictable emotional trajectory. In it, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), the estranged offspring of ailing father Edward, attempts to cut through the web of exaggerated lies his father has told him over the years and learn who he really was. A compulsive storyteller and frequent fabricator, Edward has alienated his son and continues to stymie his attempts to connect as he lays on what appears to be his death bed. As the film proceeds, it spends most of its running time in flashback, relaying the embellished story of Edward’s growth as a man. Unfortunately, Burton is so taken with Edward’s tales that the son’s efforts to find the man who lives behind the façade come off like the machinations of a sulking child. The father gives no justification for his actions, and the movie doesn’t ever really suggest he needs any. It’s easy to see the movie as the adamant defense of a storyteller, but it’s just as easy to see a blind spot in that logic. Self-absorption is not inherently unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sometimes take its toll. Big Fish is so uninterested in the real world that Jessica Lange, as Edward’s frequently abandoned wife, has next to no role to play. If she feels anything other than sheer gratefulness for Edward, it’s not apparent. Worst of all, there’s no explanation beyond a mundane desire for greatness for Edward’s partial retreat into his fantasy world, which allows the viewer to better sympathize with Will, but leaves his father as a sketchily developed figure, even after the film ends.
Ewan McGregor, as the younger Edward Bloom, seems to be reprising his Down With Love performance, to much distraction, though here there’s no Catcher Block to ground his Zip Martin. His rambunctious, charismatic appeal does call to mind the scrappy sort of life force so present in American folklore. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have much common ground with the older, dying man we see (played by Albert Finney). This disconnect of character leaves the film’s framing device feeling a bit unmoored. The rest of the cast similarly feels adrift in a series of underwhelming visual effects and underdeveloped relationships. Though the images, which are meant to be the true stars of Big Fish, are certainly thematically cohesive, in being consistent and explainable, they lose a lot of their magic. It’s almost shocking to realize that the most memorable image in a Burton film is as simple as a cat plunging from a high-wire. More troubling still is that the film’s ultimate affirmation of American values, of picket fences and town squares, isn’t adequately convincing, and as a result fails to provide any sort of emotional catharsis. Furthermore, the concluding sentiment that a colorful fabrication is probably preferable to a more honest, if mundane, reality should be greeted with ambivalence instead of a cheerful embrace.
When Big Fish, presumably adapted from a novel with numerous characters and adventures edited out, winds down and asks us to appraise Edward Bloom as a man, one’s impression of his life will likely feel truncated instead of epic. Even though it’s clearly supposed to feel as if Edward lived a large, if partially imagined life, the four or five episodes and few montages the film presents as its approximation do him a disservice. Its simple conclusions about Edward’s motivations do a lot to uncomplicate the man. A facile explanation of his psychological makeup might put his son at ease, but it doesn’t satisfy me as a viewer. Burton’s vision here seems compromised by its tearjerker aspects, and the end result feels far less visionary or magical than even the similar, but still not entirely successful, Northfork. At least when that film channeled the American pastoral landscape through its story of loss, it transformed it into something uncompromising and mysterious. The feelings that Big Fish inspires and the sights that it shows are, by comparison, frustratingly deterministic.