THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Tim Burton is famous for telling wild tales, and his new film Big Fish is, perhaps not coincidentally, about a guy who loves to tell wild tales. Albert Finney stars as Edward Bloom, an aging storyteller who is basically on his deathbed. He gets a visit from his son Will (Billy Crudup), who acknowledges resentment against his father; the old man has never really told the truth about his life and Will wants to know the honest story. His mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange), encourages him not to worry so much about how things really happened, especially since everyone knows Ed is an exaggerator anyway. The suggestion goes unheeded, as Will is determined to make his father be real with him at least once in life.

Through the use of voiceover and flashbacks, Will recounts some of the stories his father has told him. Ewan McGregor plays Ed as a younger man. His stories start tall and only get taller. Supposedly, he popped out of his mother’s womb at birth and skidded down the hospital corridor. Later in life, he met a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory) and they ran off to join the circus together. There, he saw Sandra (played in these flashbacks by Alison Lohman), and instantly knew he wanted to marry her. However, it took three years of cleaning elephant dung and being shot out of a cannon before the circus ringleader (Danny DeVito) would tell him how to find her. Ed also recounts a magical visit to a utopian town (with Heaven-ly overtones) as well as the story of a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) whose milky eye would forecast the death of anyone who looked into it.

Tall tales indeed, and Will is pretty sure all of it is bunk. Perhaps the wildest tale of all has to do with Ed catching a gigantic fish by tying his gold wedding band to the line (he then wrestled the fish to get it back). In the second hour of the movie, Will begins to investigate his father’s stories in more detail and is surprised to find that, while exaggerated, many of them had some basis in truth. The causes him to again question his relationship with his dad and what it has all meant.

The title Big Fish is obviously metaphorical. Sure, there actually is a big fish that figures into the plot. Mostly though, the title refers to the fact that Ed is a big fish in a small pond. He loves being the center of attention and entertaining people with slightly fabricated tales of his life. That makes for an interesting father/son dynamic. The son wants to know who the father really is; the father insists that there’s no big mystery – he’s a storyteller. Albert Finney and (especially) Billy Crudup are excellent together. They bring this conflict to life in a very realistic and identifiable way.

Big Fish is one of those movies where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. In addition to Finney and Crudup, there are fine performances from everyone in the cast. I also like the visual look of the film. Tim Burton is renowned for interesting cinematic visuals, and he again outdoes himself here. The look of that utopian town, of the giant who towers over everyone else, of the spookily decrepit woods Ed gets lost travelling through – all those things are sensational. From moment to moment, you never know what’s going to come onto the screen. I always love that quality in a film. The movie is made up of one terrific fantastical image after another.

Somehow, though, all those great scenes strung together don’t add up to overall greatness. Big Fish is certainly a good film, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was something a little underwhelming about it. Then it hit me: the tone of the movie is very light and whimsical - perhaps too whimsical. Tim Burton does a good job here, but he’s trying to do the polar opposite of what he’s famous for, which is “dark and twisted.” Watching the film, you can almost feel him fighting his natural urge to put any darkness in. While I totally respect Burton (or any director, for that matter) attempting to try something different, I have to say that Tim Burton doing “whimsical” is not as interesting as Tim Burton doing “dark and twisted.” He’s demonstrated a previous ability to mix the two effectively, most notably in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I think Big Fish would have sunk in a little deeper if it wasn’t all smiles. A little touch of twistedness would have given it a bigger impact.

I can easily recommend the movie, though. Scene for scene, it offers more imagination than most mainstream Hollywood releases do. There’s some emotion too. I won’t give away the ending, but it perfectly blends reality and fantasy in a way that would do Ed Bloom proud.

( out of four)

Big Fish is rated PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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