Big Fish (2003)

I some strange fit of synchronicity, I began to read Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life this morning while waiting in my dentist’s office. Synchronicity, you say? Well, it’s like this: McCammon’s book is, by his own admission, intended to capture a young boy’s youth (like Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, only, I imagine, a little darker and/or more violent) as told through the stories of the now-grown Cory Mackenson. His introduction as a middle-aged man introduces, immediately, the idea that there is a “magic” in the young that leaves us as we age, that those of us who are past that time are jealous or wary of that magic and so brush any and all of it aside when it appears. As the icing on this peculiar coincidence, Cory’s hometown is Zephyr–a fictional small town in Alabama.

Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) has just received news that his father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), is taking a turn for the worse in his health. Will has been estranged from his father after becoming fed up with his endless “tall tales” and “big fish stories,” not talking for three years, primarily after Edward hijacks his son’s wedding to tell one of his infamous stories. Will’s mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) is ever-faithful to her ailing husband and has no issues with him, while Will’s wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) is curious about him after Will’s stories of him. Will wants to know the man behind the stories, but all Edward tells are the stories of his youth as filtered through his “flavoring” as he puts it. We are treated to many of these stories ourselves, shown being told at various times, both in the present with the skeptical Will and in the past with the enthusiastic and interested young version of the same. These stories are shown to us with a younger Edward (Ewan McGregor), who progresses through travails with giants (played by the real life sufferer of elephantiasis Matthew McGrory, who actually stood only about 7’6″, until he sadly passed in 2005), humongous fish that hunger for gold, woods filled with jumping spiders, secret towns, a witch (director Tim Burton’s fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) and the love of his life, Sandra (who is played in her youth by Alison Lohman).

There’s an interesting mix of response to this film–most of it is positive, but a lot of it is assumptive or declarative, which is amusingly contradictory in light of the film’s seeming basic message. I saw one of the producers tell me that everyone loves Edward Bloom, “including the audience” and read another review that equates Bloom to a “drunken uncle” that you try from whose grip you try to wrest the microphone. Burton seems to poke at any such black and white declarations both outside and inside the film. A momentary intrusion of fantasy into Will’s life blurs the line for even Will, while many other scenes begin to push away some of the fantastical elements that Edward works so hard to construct (even if storytelling is as effortless for him as it seems it is). My feelings were somewhere in the middle, as Edward’s stories are too fantastic for anyone to really take seriously, too close to legend and fairy tale for anyone to take them wholly seriously, so there’s not the harm of a rambling drunk behind them, while at the same time, it’s a lot easier to empathize with Will than some other folks seem to think. It’s easy to see Will’s frustration at the emotional distance of his father, and at his refusal to be straight with him at any point. Some criticism was also levelled at McGregor’s bright grin and complete disconnect from the people around him, but this is exactly what he should be–Edward envisions himself, within these stories, as exactly that, the bright and simplistic hero.

We can see glimpses of probable reality behind some of the stories told, while others are impenetrable. The vengeful and effortless competition between Edward and Don Price (David Denman), the way that he is seen slumped every time Edward achieves some monstrous (usually sporting) victory really nudged me into the belief that more than likely Price was indeed the stereotypical ultra-popular quarterback type high schooler and had actually perpetrated most of these embarrassments on Edward. This is, of course, pure conjecture on my part and doesn’t guarantee anything, any more than the suggestion that Edward did at least flirt with the idea of affair with Jennifer Hill (also Bonham Carter), even if he never did actually go through with one. It makes one a bit curious, much like Will, to know just what did happen to his father throughout his life–even if it’s more banal, sometimes it ends up being interesting anyway, and does not devalue the stories, as few are likely to believe stories of werewolves anyway. I applaud original author Daniel Wallace (who I assume had the original line), or screenwriter John August (who at least kept it, if he didn’t create it) and whoever else was responsible for the interaction between Will and Dr. Bennett (Robert Guillaume) about the story of his birth, where the simple story of Will’s birth inspires a clear note of appreciation from Will, giving an honest note to his claim that he rather likes the story.

The fascinating thing about this film was that it was a Tim Burton film. I can always rely on Burton for a few good things, one being elements of the fantastic and another being a score from Danny Elfman (my love for whom is relatively well known, at least by virtue of my decent collection of Oingo Boingo records and CDs), and on neither does he disappoint here. However, this was, while clearly a Tim Burton film, not so wildly eccentric as Tim’s films (or hair!) usually are. I suppose this falls back to Daniel Wallace, as it would be difficult to take stories and events like these and push them into that ultra-bizarre territory Burton created primarily for his 80’s films. For this it’s hard for me to like it, as a Tim Burton movie, more than some of those prior works (I believe I would have to vote for Beetlejuice as tops, since even now I can go back and watch only to wonder how in the hell anyone, even if it wasn’t Burton, could come up with these insane ideas–but more importantly how Burton could so seemingly effortlessly drop them into film form), but it’s a very good film in its surprising way. I was pleased to see such a very relateable film come out of Burton, one that really connects emotionally as it does so well in Finney’s interactions with everyone, with a typically strong and real performance from Crudup, as well as an appealing fascination from Cotillard. It was nice that he was not above unusual nods to prior films though, especially the “breakfast machine” from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (inspiration for one of my favourite pieces by Elfman) and even the more unusual (and not-so-Burton-related) appearance of Billy Redden, in a pseudo-reprisal of his infamous banjo-playing role in Deliverance.

I can’t let this review escape the locality of my own computer without noting the presence of a few more actors though. Naturally, as with many, I have a great appreciation for Steve Buscemi’s peculiar look and style, his nervousness and quick offense at some comments work perfectly for estranged poet Norther Wilson, with a nice lighter tone than some of his heavier roles (Fargo, Reservoir Dogs…), and also Deep Roy. I appreciate his work for the last few decades, his endless appearances and hard work, apparently willing to try anything and everything from puppetteering to full-fledged acting, but I’m a little bothered by what seems to be an attempt to cultivate a cult around him (especially as it really doesn’t seem to be working). This is admittedly irrational and totally unimportant, but it bothers me, as it has led some to relegate Kenny Baker to a background role in the performance of R2-D2 in the Star Wars films when Roy was the secondary actor for the role. Still, props to his strange deadpan approach to all of his roles and his openness to any kind of role.

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