In a stagnant pond
Optimistic fans of director Tim Burton might see his latest, Big Fish, as a bona fide comeback from his universally panned remake of Planet of the Apes. Full of Burton’s trademark bizarre beauty in an attempt to tell a tale to swell the heart rather than scratch the head, there’s a decent argument that it’s Burton’s most ambitious and personal film since Edward Scissorhands. Unfortunately, an argument that it stands as one of his more frustrating, empty efforts holds more water.
Despite a big cast and epic scope, this distant cousin of Forrest Gump comes off as a meager, unimportant film and never hits a consistently enjoyable stride. The performances are all fine, the art direction and cinematography often exquisite. It’s just that the story garners little support and sympathy for its protagonists, Ed Bloom (played by Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) and son Will Bloom (Billy “I Don’t Want to Be a Movie Star” Crudup).
Spouting exaggerated stories at his son’s Alabama wedding, Ed Bloom (Finney, with a decent Southern accent) irritates his impatient son Will and winds up not speaking to him for years. When Ed is on his deathbed, his son comes to his side for a retelling of some of his dad’s more legendary fables, including his storybook quest to marry his mother (played by Jessica Lange full-grown, and Alison Lohman as a young woman). McGregor plays Ed’s younger self in the flashbacks, and he looks remarkably like a young Finney. He is equally masterful with the Southern accent, and his characterization translates well into Finney’s older take on Bloom. The casting is excellent.
Too bad the same can’t be said for Bloom’s tall-tale stories of a whitewashed deep American South. Complete with a traveling circus led by Danny DeVito and a mysterious town in the woods called Spectre, Bloom’s life, even filtered through his embellishment machine, isn’t all that interesting. It’s full of magical witches, giant men and even a wolf man (a strange passage with DeVito), and none of them really register as crowning creative achievements. Like a big story told badly, they are boring.
Meant to illustrate how the mind and imagination can embellish a simple life event, the moral of the story is wacky. It seems to say we should respect a person’s right to become delusional, that a great imagination makes for a really good way to tolerate a mundane sales job or your average courtship. All of this is safe and fun within the confines of one’s mind, but Burton’s film celebrates a man’s ability to outright lie about his past and alienate his son.
Certainly, fantasy can be prettier and more wondrous than reality, and that’s why it exists. Big Fish, based on the Daniel Wallace novel Big Fish: A Story of Mythic Proportions, seems to be encouraging a full-on escape into the fantasy world. A world where racism doesn’t exist in the Deep South, and a father isn’t being criminally insensitive by bullshitting his kid all the time. Had the film made that fantasy world a little more intriguing and original, it could’ve made for some passable, wonderfully morbid entertainment.
But because it is so dull, and because the fantasy world rarely sparks the imagination despite periodically looking good, a feeling that the Ed Bloom character is a big dolt who shunned the love of a child for useless tale-weaving pervades. Burton will continue to make movies that look terrific and tickle the brain with their offbeat nonsensicality. But Big Fish, his attempt at profundity, winds up being one of his more shallow films.