On the face of it, Big Fish would seem like a pretty promising project for Tim Burton to helm. Adapted by John August from a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s the story of a habitual fantasist, a man who has reconstructed his personal history as a series of tall tales and who has told them so often that he’s come to truly believe them. These stories, which make up the bulk of the film, offer ample opportunity for Burton to tease out their grotesque elements (his specialty), though the material here doesn’t allow for the intimations of perversity found in Burton’s best work. The underpinnings in Big Fish are more whimsical than dark. The result is a somewhat toothless Burton outing, lightly entertaining and eventually layered with a gooey spread of schmaltz.
The fantasist is Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a traveling salesman who lives in a small town in Alabama with his adoring wife (Jessica Lange), who may or may not believe his stories but takes them in stride, unlike his grown son Will (Billy Crudup), who’s become alienated from the old man and hasn’t spoken to him in years. Will’s problem is he’s not quite sure who his father actually is, for he feels the real person has disappeared behind a facade of self-aggrandizing myth. The stories that so entertained Will as a child annoy him now that he’s a grown man. It’s part of the film’s scheme — the championing of fantasy over reality — that Will seems a little dour. No longer willing to believe, he’s fallen from grace.
We see the fabled Edward in a series of flashbacks, where he’s played by Ewan McGregor, a fact which suggests the surrounding story be taken with a grain of salt. If not, one might balk at the idea that the young, dewy-eyed McGregor becomes the dissipated old duffer Finney. Or that the young woman he marries, played by the petite Alison Lohman, a 20-something actress who can (and has, in White Oleander and Matchstick Men) pass for an adolescent, morphs into the comparatively statuesque Jessica Lange.
The stories concentrate on Edward’s bravery in bizarre circumstances. As a child he confronts a witch (Helena Bonham Carter, instantly recognizable despite tons of witchy makeup) whose glass eye foretells the future. He meets and befriends a frightening, but as it turns out rather timid giant. He performs feats of daring in a circus run by a opportunistic but not really evil Danny DeVito, and so on. Each vignette offers its little frisson of danger but remains suitable as family fare.
Edward may be a dreamer but he’s not an idler. In one story he stumbles on the remote village of Spector, a sylvan glade removed from the evils of civilization, so invitingly grassy that everybody goes about their business barefooted. But although the town is utopian it’s also a trap. Edward is surprised to find that one of the village’s inhabitants is the poet Norther Winslow. Winslow (Steve Buscemi) had disappeared at the height of his fame and Edward, a fan, is chagrined to discover that the writer has spent his years in Spector trying to complete a single poem, never getting past the first few words. Apparently happiness is no spur to creativity. Spector is too much of a cool-breeze fantasy for the high-energy Edward and he soon splits. Years later, during a relatively settled period after his marriage, he runs into Winslow again, now free of Spector and pursuing his new career as a bank robber.
In between these fitfully amusing anecdotes runs the story of Edward and Will’s reconciliation. We know it’s coming because Edward is dying and we know that this isn’t the kind of movie that leaves you hanging when it comes to the big emotional push. We also know, since the message throughout is that fantasy is more satisfying than reality, that it’s Will who’s going to have to make the biggest adjustment in order for the two to finally reconnect. Or perhaps it’s the viewer who’s being asked to adjust, since there’s an ending that suggests that many of Edward’s fantasies were just an exaggeration of an unusual reality. Which is whimsical as hell, not to mention extremely fishy.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].