(director: Tim Burton; screenwriters: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace; cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot; editor: Chris Lebenzon; music: Danny Elfman; cast: Ewan McGregor (Edward Bloom as Young Adult), Albert Finney (Edward Bloom as Older Adult), Billy Crudup (Will Bloom), Jessica Lange (Sandra Bloom as Older Adult), Helena Bonham Carter (Jenny and Witch), Alison Lohman (Young Sandra Bloom), Robert Guillaume (Dr. Bennett as Older Adult), Steve Buscemi (Norther Winslow), Danny DeVito (Amos Calloway), Marion Cotillard (Josephine), Matthew McGrory (Karl), Loudon Wainwright III (Beamen), Ada Tai (Ping), Arlene Tai (Jing); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Richard D. Zanuck/Bruce Cohen/Dan Jinks; Columbia Pictures; 2003)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Tim Burton (”Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”/”Edward Scissorhands”/”Sleepy Hollow”/”Ed Wood”) one of filmdom’s more prolific directors is known for his visual flair and storytelling ability, which is considered innovative, imaginative, whimsical, and at times even impishly perverse. But his storytelling ability is more a matter of suiting one’s particular taste, which never matched mine, and his films have always looked good but nevertheless always lacked substance. Big Fish is no exception. It’s a fantasy film where telling tall tales should play right into Burton’s strengths as a filmmaker. But for an imaginative film that relies on blowing the viewer away with fantastic scenes, I found it all too pedestrian and if you will…unimaginative. The storyline was slight and forgettable, and its sweating hard attempt to act the part of the aggressive traveling salesman to make me buy a product I didn’t need with such a sugary sentimental pitch, never worked.
It’s adapted from a script by John August and is based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, being more an adult fairy-tale than a child’s story about the magical mind-altering power of the imagination for the true believer. Big Fish is the story of patriarch Edward Bloom (played by Albert Finney as the older Bloom, Ewan McGregor as the younger), a man who can’t face his drab real life and has instead built his entire life around telling tall tales and exaggerating episodes to the point his very existence has become enigmatic and mythological. His practical son Will (Billy Crudup) believed his lies while growing up but has now come to resent his dad and has been estranged from him the last three years. But upon hearing his father has been hospitalized and is dying, the journalist returns to his hometown in Alabama, with his pregnant magazine photographer French wife Josephine and tries to get to know his dad before it’s too late by intensively interviewing him with an effort to get at the truth–using a method any good journalist would. The movie goes back and forth between Will and his father and the stories that are told by the father, with the majority of the film set in a never never land of the father’s past. In a glossy photographic way the film sweeps across a phony sterilized Alabama landscape where in the time of segregation no hard feelings seem to exist between the races. He visits a fairy-tale hamlet called Spectre, where the streets are paved with grass and the beaming citizens all walk around barefoot; he encounters a supposed witch (Helena Bonham Carter) whose oracular glass eye can reveal how one will die; on the campus of Auburn he fills the quadrangle with daffodils to steal away the young lady he loves (Alison Lohman as the younger Sandra, Jessica Lange as the older Sandra Bloom) from his hometown rival, and she will later become his forever grinning wife. The movie also includes a part for a giant named Karl to act as cute as a giant can act; some colorful circus folks led by Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito), a part werewolf circus ringmaster, who in such a dishonest film as this one proves himself to be a good guy after keeping the father on as a virtual slave; a pair of conjoined Korean twins freed by heroic soldier dad to come join the sleazy circus owner in America rather than entertain the North Korean Red army; a country road dad wandered in that reminds one of the Grimm Brothers’ woods; and the signature fish story that gives the movie its title, about a fish in the hometown Ashton River that grows enormously large because it’s never caught and might have links to a pre-historic age.
After catching all these wild stories that blur the lines between reality and fantasy, with no tension coming forth and not anything real happening, I’m left wondering what it was all about. It would be too inane to believe that the filmmaker actually wants us to go for the bald-faced lie over anything real because it is so charmingly told, which is another way of adopting Hollywood’s moneymaking code of giving the paying customers whatever they want as long as they feel entertained and the investors are happy with the box-office returns. But that is exactly what this film is about. Along with the superficial metaphors disclosed about death and love and an idyllic life, which are supposed to be poignant pronouncements for the film to coverup all its emptiness and its attempts at doling out false hopes for those who buy into its premise.
In Big Fish I can applaud the veteran English actor Finney and the young Scottish actor McGregor for their impeccable southern accents. But with that being said, their roles lacked weight, clarity, or character development. Finney had no personality in his real life character and was cartoonish in his legendary one, as he seemed to be disconnected. Waiting for something to finally mean something while wiling away my time looking at all the fancy sets, the payoff came by way of an awkwardly derived Felliniesque conclusion where the son buys into his father’s lies and tries to top him in telling bigger tall tales. I came out of the theater singing to anyone who would care to listen: “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
REVIEWED ON 1/20/2004 GRADE: C