Wednesday, Dec. 10
"Big Fish" is a misfire. The film that wants to be lighter than air instead crashes to earth with the swiftness of a concrete parachute. Director Tim Burton, whose early career displayed a dazzling gift for the surreal, is in a slump. Yet whatever one thought of his two most recent pictures, "Planet of the Apes" or "Sleepy Hollow", nothing will prepare his admirers for this belabored oddity that is one long-winded tall tale illustrated with hammy, artificial sets and gee-whiz acting.
It's hard to think what audience "Big Fish" might attract once the opening weekend is over. The circus performers and fantasy elements may delight youngsters, but older moviegoers will be put off by the clumsiness in the film's style and tone.
The source material, Daniel Wallace's novel "Big Fish, A Story of Mythic Proportions," concerns a charismatic Southern gentleman who, in his stories of the past, has transformed his life into an almost Homeric odyssey through a fablelike world. While there is a kernel of truth in every tale, these adventure stories become the means by which this slippery and now aging man can hold intimacy at bay: All his life, Edward Bloom (played with fine bluster by Albert Finney
) has used whimsy and jocular charm to keep people at a distance.
Burton and screenwriter John August
try to visualize this literary conceit by intertwining Edward's tall tales about his adventures as a young man (played by Ewan McGregor
) with the efforts of Bloom's journalist son Will (Billy Crudup
) to establish the facts of his dad's life. Having wearied of the outlandish stories and tired of operating in the shadows of his gregarious father, Will has married a French woman (Marion Cotillard
) and fled to Paris, where he works for the AP. Summoned home to reconcile with his now dying father by his loving and tolerant mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange
), Will means to separate myth from reality once and for all.
For a while, the absurdist imagery in Edward's tales tickle the fancy: A storm maroons a car in a tree. A pale nude figure of a woman drifts in the moonlight above a river. A large fish swallows Edward's gold wedding band. Edward stumbles across an isolated town no one ever leaves.
The characters also intrigue initially: There is a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory
) who proves to be shy and gentle, a circus ringmaster (Danny DeVito
) who turns into a werewolf, conjoined Korean lounge singers who join Edward in his travels and a witch Helena Bonham Carter
) who has a glass eye that foretells how Edward will die.
But these stories never get beyond their surreal imagery. They stand in isolation from the storyteller and his family as denials of reality spurred by no particular condition or circumstances.
What is even more curious in the movie version, when Will does investigate these stories -- he merely narrates his dad's stories in the novel -- Burton and August seem reluctant to let go of these folk tales. The isolated town really does exist, only it has fallen on hard times. Many characters are real, only exaggerated.
By insisting on the literal reality of Edward's inventions -- as opposed to the gross exaggerations of an overactive imagination -- the movie undermines its own theme of a teller of tale tales who relates truth through fiction.
As the fatally ill storyteller, Finney gets to chew the scenery but pins down few character specifics. As warm and accepting wives, Lange and Cotillard smile prettily but do little else. Crudup is burdened with a cantankerous character forever fussing and fuming about his father's failures as a father. As the young man seen in mythic flashbacks, McGregor gets to stare in wide-eyed wonder at the fabulous adventures, but his is mostly a reactive role.
Production design and costumes lack the ingenuity of Burton's previous forays into colorful imaginary worlds. Sets in particular look a little too much like movie sets.
A Jinks/Cohen Co./Zanuck Co. production
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: John August
Based on a novel by: Daniel Wallace
Producers: Bruce Cohen
, Dan Jinks
, Richard D. Zanuck
Executive producer: Arne Schmidt
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Music: Danny Elfman
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editors: Chris Lebenzon
Young Edward Bloom: Ewan McGregor
Old Edward Bloom: Albert Finney
William Bloom: Billy Crudup
Sandy Bloom: Jessica Lange
Young Sandy: Alison Lohman
Jenny/Witch: Helena Bonham Carter
Norther Winslow: Steve Buscemi
Amos Calloway: Danny DeVito
Dr. Bennett: Robert Guillaume
Josephine: Marion Cotillard
Karl the Giant: Matthew McGrory
Running time -- 120 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13