Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Big Fish
By Nicholas Stix

May 10, 2006

Big Fish is about Edward Bloom, life, and the storyteller's art. Edward Bloom is "a very social person," as he says of himself. A scenery-chewing fellow, he has been taking center stage since childhood with his yarns about "uncatchable fish," among other things. Since marrying his one true love, Sandra (one of the "uncatchable fish"), he has woven many more tales, such as the story of the birth of another "uncatchable fish," his son and only child, Will.

Most of Big Fish is told in flashback from Edward Bloom's (Albert Finney) deathbed to the old man's French photojournalist daughter-in-law. Bloom's dour journalist son, Will (Billy Crudup, in a thankless role), who works for UPI, wants the old man, who was on the road as a salesman during most of Will's childhood, to finally "be himself" and "tell the truth" about his life before he goes. "I've been myself, since the day I was born!" remonstrates the father from bed.

The viewer is invited to absorb Edward's stories, and decide for himself whether and to what degree they are true. As Sandra says to William in a moment much played in TV ads for the picture, "Not all of your father's stories are complete fabrications."

Edward Bloom (played by Perry Walston as a young boy and Ewan McGregor, who looks like an undersized Conan O'Brien, as a high school student and as a twenty and thirty-something) grew up in Ashton, Alabama, a town much too small for someone with his outsized ambitions. Already the touchdown-scoring, science-fair-winning, saving-a-dog-from-a-burning house star of the town, Edward encounters a 15-foot man (played by Matthew McGrory, who actually lists at 7'6") and decides to shake off the dust of that little town and see the world.

And so he does. He travels as near as the next-door paradise-on-earth of Spectre, Alabama and as far away as China. He's in the circus, he's in the war (what war we're not told, though it seems like Korea, and we never know what year it is), he's selling "handy" contraptions, and he does good deeds. He crosses paths with Siamese twins (Ada and Arlene Tai) and dog-men (let yourself be surprised), or so he says. And some big fish. Always it is his "destiny" he is consciously seeking and yet, for all his ambitions, Edward Bloom lives for love.

Big Fish is certainly a fantasy. Director Tim Burton and screenwriter John August (working from Daniel Wallace's novel) refuse to take the easy way out by saying, "Aw shucks, folks, we're just having some fun." Remember, not all of Edward Bloom's stories are complete fabrications.

While watching Big Fish, I couldn't help thinking about another film adaptation of a picaresque novel on the fantastic adventures of a Southern protagonist that also begins in Alabama, Forrest Gump. But while Forrest Gump chronicled the "real" (within its fictional world) exploits of its decent simpleton-hero who stumbles from one dramatic, true historical event to the next, Big Fish tells stories about the adventures of its decent, but far less simpleminded, protagonist who changes many lives on a much more intimate level.

Big Fish required a scenery-chewing star. Although Albert Finney is on camera much less as the dying Edward than Ewan McGregor is as his younger self, this is Finney's movie. Finney is one of those larger-than-life presences who can dominate a scene without stealing it, like the great stage actor that he is, and his voiceovers introduce each of McGregor's adventures. Ewan McGregor is quite charming as the younger Edward, and bears a resemblance to the young Finney, but he is no Finney. Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange are both luminous as the younger and older Sandra Bloom.

While I am fully aware of Lange's far leftwing politics, she is so charming in her way of presenting her positions in talk-show appearances that she is the rare Hollywood lefty who does not make it darned-near impossible for non-lefties to enjoy her work without always thinking about her repulsive politics. I've had a crush on her for over 20 years.

Lohman, while smaller and more petite than Lange, is nonetheless believable as her younger self. Note that while Lange is on screen only a few minutes, (Lohman, who is on screen even less, gets very few lines) she is marvelous. There are too many brief but memorable roles in the large cast to cite more than a few. Steve Buscemi plays a sometimes poet. A restrained Robert Guillaume shines as the family doctor, Dr. Bennett, who acts as an intermediary between the poetic and prosaic worlds of the Bloom family. (Guillame, by the way, who in 1999 suffered a stroke, looks great.)

The one heartbreaking character of Big Fish is that of Jenny, who appears at age 8 (Hailey Anne Nelson), around 28, and then at around 48 (both times by Helena Bonham Carter). Nelson and Carter are both irresistible in their incarnations of her. Carter also plays an old witch.

Danny Elfman's original score is alternately whimsical, poignant, and ebullient. He got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. That was the only nomination for a movie that deserved, in my estimation, 10 or 11, and should have won Finney his first Oscar. Alas, as is too often the case with director Tim Burton's movies, Big Fish did not do well at the box office.

Of the storyteller's trade, Burton tells us that good stories may involve exaggeration, but are not necessarily complete fabrications. Rather, they are woven from the fabric of life.

The main extra the Big Fish DVD offers is a director's commentary, which I suggest you see after having seen the movie several times and formulated your own opinion.

A melancholy postscript: Matthew McGrory, who played the endearing giant in Big Fish, died August 9 of last year, at the age of 32.

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