Archive for Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Big Fish’ hooks viewer with tall tales

(PG-13) ***1/2

January 7, 2004

Few filmmakers know more about exaggeration than Tim Burton.

The fanciful director has made a career crafting fables of
larger-than-life misfits who try to adjust to a restrictive society -
whether it's the shears-limbed hero in "Edward Scissorhands," the
quixotic filmmaker in "Ed Wood" or even the Halloween honcho who
takes over Santa's gig in "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Maybe none of Burton's characters has ever been more larger-than-life
than Ed Bloom, the heart of "Big Fish." Played in his youth by Ewan
McGregor and later by Albert Finney, the jaunty Southerner has lived
through adventures that would fit right in with Paul Bunyan and Pecos
Bill ... or at least that's what he claims.

We first meet Ed late in life during a montage of different moments
when he is telling the same story about a catfish that swallowed his
wedding ring. While his various audiences and wife Sandra (Jessica
Lange) find the tale charming, his son Will (Billy Crudup) has grown
resentful of these whoppers. This has caused enough friction in the
pair's relationship that the men haven't spoken to each other in
three years.

When it is revealed that Ed is dying, Will and his fiance Josephine
(Marion Cotillard) return to the Bloom's hometown in Alabama to try
and find some closure. While there, Ed recounts his far-fetched life
story for the couple, and they must decide whether these memories of
giants, witches, bank robbers, ghost towns and war-time espionage
have any truth to them.

"So this is a tall tale?" Ed is asked.

"Well, it's not a short one," he responds.

The strikingly vivid "Big Fish" is really the story of two journeys.
One is the literal and/or mythological quest that Ed embarks on in
his youth, which starts with leaving his small town for parts unknown
and eventually courting Sandra (played in flashback by Alison
Lohman). The other is that of Will's present-day investigation into
who his father really is.

"We were like strangers who knew each other very well," Will narrates.

That the journeys intertwine so well without one-upping each other is
a credit to Burton's deft handling of both the zany, radiant visuals
(such as the forced perspective of the giant played by Matthew
McGrory) and the more simplified conversational scenes. This is a
film that nails the pictorial details of whatever environment or era
into which the story intrudes.

There is much to praise in the casting of "Big Fish." It's already
kind of impressive how much McGregor and Finney resemble each other.
Ditto for Lohman and Lange. Characters don't necessarily have to be
physically identical to achieve credibility. But often they're so off
base that they can take the viewer right out of the movie. (See the
siblings in "Cheaper by the Dozen," who look no more genetically
linked than any 12 random people waiting in line at The Gap.)

Finney particularly resonates as a magnetic man who has capitalized
on his mouth for so long that he's incapable of speaking without
adding a dab of embellishment. Expect an Oscar nomination for the
67-year-old veteran in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Equally impressive is Crudup ("Almost Famous"), who takes what could
be a potentially whiny character - he plays a reporter, after all -
and turns him into a concrete individual who helps to ground the
movie. This part could be such a throwaway in comparison to the
flashier roles in the film. Crudup brings something extra to the
table.

"Big Fish" flounders a bit in its middle portions when it becomes
distracted by a relationship between Ed and Jenny (Helena Bonham
Carter), a mysterious woman from the past who tempts his fidelity.
There's little sense of what her character adds to the overall
picture, and the fact that so much time is devoted to this rather
bland section makes it that much more vexing.

(One explanation for this misstep is that Burton and Carter have been
dating since they met on his remake of "Planet of the Apes."
Presumably, sweethearts don't like to be left on the cutting-roomfloor.)

Fortunately, this adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel recovers
with a finale that is emotionally on-target. This peaks with an
uplifting father-son moment of bonding that punches home the movie's
theme about the power of generational storytelling.

There may be a question as to whether Ed and Will arrive at the same
definition of reality during this denouement. Yet there is little
argument that Burton delivers the cinematic truth in "Big Fish."

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