In a personable return to more civilized terrain after his disagreeable visit to the "Planet of the Apes," Tim Burton still doesn't entirely find his footing in the whimsical "Big Fish." The imaginatively illustrated but precariously precious film offers up a string of minor pleasures but never becomes more than moderately amusing or involving.
A correction was made to this article on Dec. 2, 2003.
In a personable return to more civilized terrain after his disagreeable visit to the “Planet of the Apes,” Tim Burton still doesn’t entirely find his footing in the whimsical “Big Fish.” Adapted from Daniel Wallace’s popular novel about a man who has made himself bigger than life through the tall tales he’s spun about himself, the imaginatively illustrated but precariously precious film offers up a string of minor pleasures but never becomes more than moderately amusing or involving. Pic’s intimate, personal feel will appeal to ardent Burton fans as well as to some critics, whose support will be vital in nudging this Sony release even to midlevel commercial success.
Using as its focus a gregarious Southern gent known far and wide for his self-referential outsized yarns, “Big Fish” forwards the notion that a storyteller becomes important and beloved, if not immortal, for the very stories he tells, not for the mundane facts of his life. This idea would clearly hold special attraction for a director like Burton, whose bent has always been for the fantastic rather than the everyday. But then almost every imaginative creator would subscribe to this view of the artist’s privileged position in the scheme of things, which is at once romantic, true and self-aggrandizing, and can excuse all manner of behavior.
In the case of Ed Bloom, his myth-making has been happily embraced by one and all except for his son Will (Billy Crudup), who’s heard all the stories a million times and felt compelled to escape to Paris and, obviously in rebellion, to work as a journalist to get away from the oppressive weight of his self-centered dad.
But when the old man (Albert Finney) takes ill, his son, who hasn’t spoken with him in a long time, returns to Alabama with pregnant wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) with one ambition in mind: “I just want know the true versions of events, of stories, of things.” Good luck.
Script by John August (“Go,” “Charlie’s Angels”) dexterously jumps among time frames, dating from the ’30s to the present day, characters at different ages, and points of view. In an alluring early scene, Bloom and his boyhood friends look into a local witch’s eye to learn how they’re going to die. Bloom, uniquely, keeps the vision confidential, but is so buoyed by what he sees that it gives him the confidence to take on any challenge in life head-on and without fear.
And so, in his own mind, at least, Bloom becomes too big a fish to be confined to little Ashton, Ala. After taming a cave-dwelling “monster” that’s been terrorizing the town, Bloom (played in youth by Ewan McGregor) hits the road with said giant Karl (Guinness Book of Records-sized thesp Matthew McGrory) to see the world, only to be quickly sidetracked by a visit to a hidden-away, time-stands-still burg called Spectre, where the residents frolic barefoot on grass streets and where Bloom is invited to stay forever.
Instead, he moves on, finding work with Karl in a traveling circus presided over by the quick-talking Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito). This huckster manages to string Bloom along for three years by doling out tiny clues about the identity of the young lady Bloom has only briefly seen at the circus but who he’s convinced is the love of his life. Bloom’s eventual courtship of Sandra (Alison Lohman) reps one of the film’s sweet delights, although this is quickly interrupted by his Army service in Asia, the highlight of which is his discovery and promotion of a unique performing duo, Siamese twins Ping and Jing (twins Ada and Arlene Tai amazingly forged into one two-legged unit via special effects).
All this is related, for the umpteenth time, by the bedridden Bloom to Will, who angrily denounces his father as a fake for making a fiction of his life. “I’ve been no one but myself since the day I was born,” Bloom replies, “and if you can’t see that, it’s your failing and not mine.”
Duly chastened, Will listens some more, to tales about how his dad was dragooned into a bank robbery and returned to Spectre to raise the hamlet from ruins and put its remaining citizens back on their feet. Will also has a long chat with an attractive local misfit (Helena Bonham Carter, who previous popped up as the Witch) with whom he’s convinced his father had an affair, but the woman tells him an unexpected story that is crucially revelatory of the man.
The episodic nature of the film causes a mild case of shifting in your seat, and like a long tale told orally, it rises and falls by the moment, depending upon the interest generated by the story’s details and the ability of the storyteller to bring them alive. Mostly, the anecdotes are distracting and nimbly related. But there are few genuinely dramatic situations, and very seldom is there a sense of urgency, meaning that the film basically hops, skips and jumps along under sunny skies with little change of mood.
As Bloom’s life and the film near the end, it also becomes apparent that a significant hole lies at the center of the tale. Much of the action stresses the man’s lifelong love for Sandra, who for her part also seems as much in love with her mate of 40 years as she did when they married. But aside from a nice bathtub scene, there is far too little interaction between the old Bloom and Sandra (played in her maturity by Jessica Lange), as the latter is mostly forced to stand by looking supportive and/or concerned while her son struggles to break through the emotional breach with dad. The conclusion, which finally reveals Bloom’s childhood vision of his own death, is elating and reasonably moving, but it might have been much more so had a scene or two been devoted to clinching the viewer’s feeling for this unusually devoted couple.
The very well-cast thesps mostly come through with flavorsome work. Crucially in a film that cuts between different actors playing the same roles at different ages, the physical matchups are outstanding, both between McGregor and Finney, and Lohman and Lange. Sedentary most of the time, Finney brings genuine warmth to the old mythomaniac without any servings of ham, and his way with words makes his tales delectable. As the young Bloom, McGregor is enthusiastic almost to a fault, a bit thickly laying on the bright smile and winning ways while still resembling his debonair ’50s playboy from “Down With Love.”
In a largely reactive role, Lohman has some sweet moments, while Bonham Carter does very well with her long confessional scene as a lonely older woman. Crudup bears up as best he can with the straight-man role August invented for the film, while DeVito and Steve Buscemi, the latter as a slippery poet-turned-robber-turned financier, sock over their extended cameos.
Per the norm with Burton’s films, craft aspects are superlative, beginning with Dennis Gassner’s exceptionally varied production design and Colleen Atwood’s equally diverse costumes, and including Philippe Rousselot’s sensitively modulated lensing, Danny Elfman’s supple score and the many imaginative special effects, among them a literal rendering of the imposing title creature.