Directed by Tim Burton (2003)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
Big Fish came out in 2003. I was in my mid twenties, whooping it up. Tim Burton hadn’t really sunk into the world of directing shitpile after shitpile at this point. I’d skipped Sleepy Hollow, but watched Planet of the Apes instead of the other way around (a grievous error).
Prior to this, Burton had made a series of interesting shorts and a few standout features. While I don’t have many of my compatriots’ nostalgic fanaticism for Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice, I do respect them, along with his turns with Batman, as good films. The ones I truly love are Ed Wood and the incomparable Mars Attacks! Each film tells a great story with outlandish and beautiful scenes presented with terrific but silly performances. When Big Fish came out, it seemed like a sappy, snoozy saga of sentimentality. I was too busy carousing with my vid store crew and going to rock and/or roll concerts. As the years passed and Burton continued pummeling us with terrible adaptations and remakes that no one ever asked for, Big Fish became an even less attractive way to spend two hours of my life. But time has passed and after a discussion with MJ's Old Sport and Suze L. Cima I decided to give it a shot.
Big Fish tells the tale of Will Bloom’s (Billy Crudup) relationship with his father Ed (Albert Finney / Ewan McGregor) as he recounts the amazing and almost entirely untrue story of his life and death. Everything Ed ever told Will was a tall tale. Whether it was meeting his wife (Jessica Lange / Alison Lohman), working in the circus with the ringmaster (Danny DeVito) and giant (Matthew McGrory) or his childhood interactions with a witch (Helena Bonham Carter), Ed was always the center of the story and it was always filled with unbelievably fantastic events. Will feels that his father’s stories are egotistical and that they overshadow his actual accomplishments and ruin his ability to live his own life in the real world.
My first impression of the film was that it didn’t look very good. In fact, I thought it was shot and lit like an after school special. I think this was partially intentional. The look of the “real world” seems lifeless and drab compared to the land inside Ed’s tales, but that land doesn’t look that great either. However, Burton always comes up with at least a few amazing looking and imaginative scenes that will stick with you after the credits roll. This time around those scenes are when Ed is born and the baby shoots across the floor, the witch’s eye that foretells Ed’s death and when Lange and Finney are in the bathtub together. In addition, the costumes and production design were above average and enjoyable.
Another high note was the casting. The selection of the different ages of the characters was pretty much perfect. It’s eerie how similar Lange and Lohman are. There are also strong performances by many of the supporting cast. Most notably Devito and McGrory. Unfortunately, they don’t command much screen time.
Overall, I didn’t care for the film. Burton spends too much of his time trying to be “weird," telling fantastic tales. He doesn’t seem to have any idea how to make a (more or less) standard drama. The voiceover comes off as hokey. The interactions between Crudup and Finney are wooden and forced.
I wasn’t aware of this going in, but the writer (John August) has worked almost exclusively with Burton since this movie. His feature debut was Go, which I recall enjoying at the time it came out, followed by Titan A.E. and the Charlie’s Angels movies. Perhaps if I’d known this I wouldn’t have expected much. Instead, I was annoyed at how one-dimensional all of the characters were. Jessica Lange’s character might have just been named “Wife." Crudup could be “Son." Marion Cotillard would be “French Woman." In the end, Will finally comes to understand and appreciate his father on his deathbed and then delights at meeting all the characters from his tales at his funeral. This actually bothered me quite a bit. I just couldn’t believe it. If Will has really had the giant emotional change, he would have been too utterly destroyed to even acknowledge these people at the funeral. Instead, he’s standing there smiling like a goon without even a glimmer in his eyes.
In the end, I felt that Big Fish was a tale of an ungrateful shit who couldn’t be bothered to make an effort to connect with his father until it's too late. After seeing this, Burton is dead to me. I can’t knowingly subject myself to a single movie more. This has been a long time coming Timmy, but WE ARE THROUGH!