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17.1.04

BIG FISH Is Worth Being Lured — by Todd Babcock

There seems to be a bit of disparity among critics and moviegoers over the verdict on Tim Burton's recent film Big Fish. While the film is making respectful money, the trades seem to report that it is underachieving according to expectations. Critics seem split on whether it's a saccharine, structureless circus of images (à la Planet of the Apes) or a truly inspired character piece like his brilliant Ed Wood. The answer is neither, and let me go on record saying that I bought it (with all apologies here) hook, line, and sinker.

"Big Fish" doesn't shy away from its sentiment or its style. The movie begins in metaphor and only balloons from there as scene after scene builds on its own ridiculousness. The structure couldn't fit Burton's creative style more in the form of one long series of stitched-together tall tales grounded back to reality with the fabric of a father-son story. Yet, while the director is swelling his canvas with mythic creativity, it is grounded firmly with a stellar cast.

The story centers around Edward Bloom (the flawless Albert Finney) in the waning years of a long and colorful life. Bloom, it seems, has been less a father than an orator of great and long-winded tales. (When his daughter-in-law asks him if "This is another tall tale?" he retorts quickly, "It certainly isn't a short one!") Playing Bloom's estranged son is Billy Crudup, who one can argue, never plays an off note. While the movie may parade its imagination on display, it is these two actors, along with Jessica Lange, who constantly place its feet back on firm ground.

The movie certainly asks something of its audience in terms of its style pill to swallow. Like its box office competitor Return of the King, one must look past the odd-looking characters and circumstances in order for the sentiment to get through. Ewan McGregor (who plays the young Bloom) embodies this notion, as in every scene he has a toothy smile pasted on like one of Burton's still drawings. While one would expect the effect to be of a flat-lining disinterest it eventually overcomes you with endearment, which could well describe the entire film.

Burton himself has gone so far as to profess that he "can't tell a story," and there are few who would disagree. Truly, even his most successful ventures (such as Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Batman, and Beetlejuice) have had the slightly veiled form of a collage of beautifully demented scenes woven together. It was with "Ed Wood" that he took a step forward with a stylized but character-driven narrative. Perhaps Tim, it was posited, was maturing as a filmmaker and we could soon expect Good Will Hunting out of him. As it turns out, he has absolutely no interest in such ventures. As he explains, "When I started in the business, they treated me like I was different; when I had success, then they wanted me because I was different. That kind of prepackaged 'difference' makes me very uncomfortable. And I have always tried to protect myself so I wouldn't know what it was they thought of as being like me. I get very uncomfortable with labeling" (New York Times Magazine). It turns out that to defy definition we were treated to the costume-driven debacle of Planet of the Apes.

I had the opportunity to work briefly with the director on "the Ape film" (don’t rent it, and if you do, don't blink), and what was so shocking and immensely captivating is that he never seemed like he was making a big action movie. Truly, he showed up on the set in jeans and his crazy hair and pretty much said, "whatever you guys wanna do." He would watch, laugh, scratch his head a bit, adjust, and then keep shooting. As I'm sure the suits and accountants at FOX wouldn't like to hear such a report, it does infuse one with a sense of empathy for the bad matching of director and project. Yet, if that's the turn it took to get us to "Big Fish," so be it.

While all this praise for "Big Fish" seems unabashed, it's not to say the film doesn't have its faults. Certainly one can see the seams of this film and how dangerously it strains under its own conventions and bloated vision. I was warned going in to this film that I would be gushing with tears by the end and was curious as to how it would pull off such a feat. Certainly these episodic scenes played out with amusement, colorful characters, and epic scope: nothing seemed to be preparing me for any maudlin, cloying, "give us an Oscar" ending. Which is why all fissures and cracks are made smooth, for I was duped in plain sight. It seems that from the start of this film it asks its audience for a brief contract of investment in its fantasy and on-its-sleeve sentimentality. A contract it cashes in on repeatedly and demands more and more, scene after scene, and just when you think its about to end, it . . . it shatters the bank. The division between fans and detractors of "Big Fish" comes down to a simple decision, made early, of whether you bite the lure or not. If you do, trust me, you'll be set free.

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