Big Fish (2003)
Ebert:1/2 Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:1/2
Warning, minor plot points revealed!
I liked Big Fish but I did not love it. I was thinking, as it started, that I was going to have to amend my Years Top 10 List again but by the end of the film I no longer thought that would be necessary. Although the movie did not meet my expectations I do believe it to be a good film in the same way Cold Mountain was a good film. Not great but good.
The biggest problem I suppose was that the trailers and previews for the movie seemed to hold such promise. They elevated my expectations to the point where I was anticipating an epic fable the likes of which had never been brought to the screen. And Tim Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood) seemed a likely director to make this happen. Burton may well create a masterpiece one day, but this film is only another of his good starts toward that goal. Perhaps his 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp will be the one, but I doubt anyone will be too quick to dismiss Gene Wilder as the only "true" Willy Wonka.
Big Fish tells the tale of an estranged son who returns, during the last days of his father's life, to reconcile and request a final true account of who his father was and is. Throughout Will Bloom's (Billy Crudup) life his father Edward (Albert Finney/Ewan McGregor) has regaled everyone with a series of outlandish fables that make up his autobiography. Over time his oral history is tweaked and revised but old Edward always insists on it's veracity. Will's mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange/Alison Lohman) does not contradict Edward's accounts either thus perpetuating the myths that eventually drove Will away.
There's a moment near the end of the film where Edward's doctor (Robert Guillaume) relates to Will the actual account of the day of his birth. The banality of it is depressing in contrast to the "Big Fish" tale that Edward has repeated time and time again. Will claims to prefer the doctor's "actual" version of events and that, for me at least, is where the movie fails. Crudup's character is a jerk. I hate him. Edwards stories have, over years and years of retelling, become the history that he believes true and is proud of. Will's attempts to smash that "reality" no matter how contrived, seems callous and cruel.
The special effects of the film are well done. The time-stop when Edward first sees Sandra is as cool as it looked in the preview and the part after where time speeds up to regain it's momentum is an interesting twist on the temporal-freeze effect. The circus, where Edward works, has the dark slightly scary atmosphere that is pure Burton. The giant and the Siamese twins are well crafted effects although the use of an actual giant was slightly sad and disturbing. The car in the tree was an interesting image, the field of daffodils was beautiful, the town of Spectre was surreal, as was the titular Big Fish.
Ewan McGregor is great as the young Edward. His accent is very Forrest Gump and he gives the character a wily spirit that transfers well to the older version of himself played by Albert Finney. Jessica Lange's emotional performance as the soon to be grieving Sandra is overshadowed by the story itself and Alison Lohman who plays the young Sandra is a dead ringer for Lange. Billy Crudup was fine as Will but I hated him so much I cannot say that I loved the performance. Burton's new muse, Helena Bonham Carter, has the dual role of Jenny and The Witch and does a fine job with both. Robert Guillaume plays the bloom family doctor, does a great job, and it is nice to see that he is still working after his real life stroke. Singer and father of Rufus, Loudon Wainwright III, pops up as mayor of Spectre. Steve Buscemi has a great supporting role as poet/bank robber/millionaire philanthropist Norther Winslow. And Danny DeVito is excellent as the freakish scary ringmaster of the circus.
Big Fish is a fine movie. It's not the Oscar bait that it has been made out to be but it is worth seeing and can be enjoyed as at least disposable entertainment. I, unlike Edward's son very much enjoyed the old mans tales. If no one gets hurt, then I will always prefer a beautiful lie to the stark boring truth.