Big Fish
Starring:
Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup
Directed By :
Tim Burton
Grade
B

Synopsis: Will Bloom (Crudup) and his father Ed (Finney) haven't said so much as a word to each other in years…and maybe wouldn't for years more except for the fact that Ed is dying. Will's mother begs him to come and see his father before it's too late, and Will, thinking of his own impending fatherhood with his fiancée Josephine, agrees. Will's main concern is that he never really knew his father. Ed Bloom is known as an agreeable and vivacious presence among friends and at social gatherings, primarily because of his tall tales of his past. When he was younger, Will adored these stories, but as he came to realize they were false he developed a resentment of his father because of this lack of honest communication. Now he seeks to understand who his father really is and what his life was like…before it's too late.

Evaluation: Kind of a mixed bag, this one. Seems to me that you either get it, or you don't. I'll try and help you figure out which category you're in. People who equate Tim Burton films with gothic imagery, stand to the side. This is a beautiful film with Burton's trademark surreal visuals, but it's not designed to scare or depress. As Ed tells stories of his past to his son, we experience them as a young Ed Bloom (McGregor) does. It is in these imaginative retellings that Burton's penchant for surreal imagery finds release. But for the most part, these moments are suffused with warm glows and the pleasure of one or a few simple elements out of place in an otherwise normal landscape. Don't expect the scary architecture of gothic cities or the even the dark humor prevalent in much of Burton's other work. Instead, this is a film filled with the 'gee-shucks' sensibilities represented in a typical view of the South more than fifty years ago.

McGregor is fantastic portraying Ed's wholesome earnestness in his youthful adventures, but he's just the tip of the wonderfully acted supporting cast. Though this movie is owned by the leading men, the infrastructure is based on the many wonderful actresses that support the various parts of Ed's stories: both Jessica Lange as his wife Sandra grown up, and Alison Lohman as her in youth; Marion Cotillard as Will's compassionate wife Josephine, and of course the always superb Helena Bonham-Carter in her dual role of Jenny and The Witch. This movie signed up all the right players to deliver some very subtle acting. Now, this relates directly to whether you'll enjoy the film or not. There are no power performances here, no ultra-dramatic scenes. But what really clinched this movie for me was Will's attempt to identify with his estranged father. He really sees very little of himself in his father, but knows there must be something there, and very much wants there to be a connection. The constant barrier to this is his father's seeming refusal to simply give him the facts of his life. All his father's stories are expounded upon in the telling, and Will feels this makes a mockery out of his life. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of Billy Crudup, and his narrow range of sentimentality in this film combined with Finney's dry blowhard may bore some people to death…but, I promise you that if you stick through this film to the end, the father/son relationship which is really the crux of the film will get a tear out of you. And it's made all the more compelling by the bare-bones approach of these two actors. It really heightens the sense of believability in contrast to the 'fish-stories' of the rest of the film.

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You see, the realization that Will comes to (with the help of the people who knew his father) is that Ed Blooms stories are his life. They are every bit as real as he is. Not in the sense that there's a bit of truth to them (more than you'd think), but in the sense that they're a part of who he is. Everyone loves him for precisely the reasons of his tales…he is imaginative and energetic and compassionate and funny, as his stories are. And though he exaggerates these qualities in his stories, through their telling over the years, he becomes more of what he wishes to be. And indeed, by the end of his life, he touched many people and does much good. This is the point of the final scenes of the movie, and it's what Will comes to realize and accept. That the details of his father's life are not as important as the manner in which he lived it. The story even goes so far as to muck with its own continuity in the end in order to illustrate its point: charm and imagination have a worth all their own. (Perhaps a knowing nod to Burton's critics.) If you can get this at the end of the movie, and if it means something to you, then you'll enjoy the film. But it's a journey each viewer will have to make to see if it takes them anywhere.
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Who Will This Appeal To?: Generally, I can say this is a drama with some light humor. Movie-goers who enjoy those types of films will probably enjoy this one. Just divorce yourselves from the expectation that this will be a dark Tim Burton film. Though there are a few moments of creepy visuals and dark humor, this is a very different Tim Burton, and represents possibly the most mature work of his career.

Final Verdict: Ultimately, the film feels a bit fragmented by the flashbacks of Ed's youth. They're a joy to behold, but not as outlandish as you might be led to believe from awards shows and trailers. Snapping back to 'reality' from these can be a bit of a bore, and won't pay off until the end of the film. But there is great human drama to be had here, wrapped up in a smart-looking, lovingly-scored, charming package. I recommend that everyone at least give this film a shot.

Details, details…: Cameos, cameos…: Steve Buscemi as a lost poet, Danny Devito as a circus ringmaster with a dark secret, Helena Bonham-Carter as the oft-referred to Witch with one eye, Robert Guillaume, Asian twins, midgets, giants, and the banjo theme from Deliverance!

- - Jeff Light

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