Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Richard Zanuck—producer of “Jaws”—brings you “Big Fish.”
But this big fish is of the story-telling, not man-eating, variety. Zanuck, with producing partners Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, has gotten behind Tim Burton’s vision of Southerner Daniel Wallace’s novel. The result is a narrative smorgasbord whose final delight is to die for.
“Big Fish” tells the story of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) and his relationship with his son, William (Billy Crudup). Edward loves tall tales, but William, a journalist in Paris, doesn’t. William prefers the facts.
When Edward falls ill, William heads home with his pregnant French wife to help his mother (Jessica Lange) and try to reconcile with his father. That’s when William—and audiences—are treated to another outlandish version of Edward’s life story.
“It doesn’t always make sense,” says William in a voice-over about his father’s stories. “And most of it never happened.” We’re plunged back in time to the story of young Edward (Ewan McGregor), growing up in the small town of Ashton, Ala.
But Edward is a big fish in that small town, and he leaves to seek fortune and fame elsewhere. His journey is nothing short of incredible—but it’s credibility that William seeks from his dying father.
But the older, bedridden Edward won’t relent in his storytelling. “Most men’ll tell you stories straight through,” he tells his son. “It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.”
Burton’s vision of Wallace’s novel—and John August’s adaptation—is lovely. “Big Fish” is a Burton story all right, and mixing Burton with the South seems as natural as sweet tea.
Burton’s singular stamp is all over this film—from manicured, suburban lawns to contraptions that help boys become men, from spooky forests to fantasies about family.
Biblical imagery also worms its way into the tale, with riffs on David and Goliath, Jacob working for Laban, and more.
The cast is superb: Finney and McGregor split time as the old and young Edward, respectively, and both deliver captivating performances. Crudup has, in many ways, a more difficult task of playing the disbelieving and frustrated bedside listener, but his refrain of restraint holds this film together.
Lange, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi and Alison Lohman round out the group giving flesh to the bones of Edward’s story—a story not only outlandish, but also one that meanders forth in exploration. “Big Fish,” like “Forrest Gump,” has no villain. Both stories simply follow the experiences of a man living a life that is beautiful if different.
Audiences swimming with “Big Fish” won’t always know how the various stories and themes fit together. Some people won’t like the fact that this film does not grow in a straight line. In fact, the movie is like a Tim Burton tree: twisted, contorted and tangled, so it’s best not to force your way in. Just let it grow over you.
“What I recall from Sunday school,” says young Edward, “was the more difficult something became, the more rewarding it was in the end.” That lesson applies to this movie as well. Even when deciphering meanings becomes troublesome, stay with the picture.
As the old Edward tells William of his dying process, “The last part is much more unusual. Trust me on that.” William can’t imagine what his father must mean, but no matter. That line adds a lot of suspense and anticipation, and any emotion you invest in that invitation will be rewarded with like emotion in the film’s final reel. Without a doubt, “Big Fish” ends exquisitely. Finney and Crudup bring this tale to a conclusion whose ripples stretch far and wide.
Once in a while, something as manufactured as celluloid reflects something as fundamental—as elemental—as a life and a death. When that happens, we leave the realm of movie-making and, for a blessed few hours, experience the gift of life more fully.
Even William Bloom would say it’s OK to swallow that one … hook, line and sinker.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity and a suggestive reference
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August (from the novel by Daniel Wallace)
Cast: Older Edward Bloom: Albert Finney; Younger Edward Bloom: Ewan McGregor; William Bloom: Billy Crudup; Older Sandra: Jessica Lange; Younger Sandra: Alison Lohman; Amos Calloway: Danny DeVito; Norther Winslow: Steve Buscemi.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.