As usual, Tim Burton's latest film is abundant in storytelling piquancy and deficient in storytelling proficiency. I love-hate Burton for his superior visual style and narrative blockheadedness--his first film remains his near-perfect best, the wonderfully childish Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Almost by lack of ambition (and with the simple self-directive to tell a good and funny, eye-appealing story), that film canonized Burton as the man who would be Grimm. Since then, he's made a string of mesmeric but frequently clumsy storybook pictures. Big Fish--adapted by John August (Go) from the Daniel Wallace novel--represents an apotheosis of sorts for Burton, an Oscar-friendly story which forces Burton's inner child to reconcile with his middle-aged adult, with mixed results.
Billed as "An adventure as big as life itself," Big Fish takes place in the real world and the tall-tale universe of Albert Finney's self-made man Ed Bloom (Burton films both worlds mostly in Alabama). Like an inside-out Walter Mitty, Ed brims with confidence; rightly or wrongly, he's come to believe, to his son's lasting irritation, in his own legends. Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom (yeesh), who lives uncomfortably in his father's larger-than-life-of-the-party shadow. When Ed faces an iminent (and indeterminate) death, Will resolves to learn the truth about his father, who naturally won't make it easy. "In telling the story of my father's life, it's impossible to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth," says Will. "We were like strangers who knew each other very well."
The bulk of the film, then, is taken up with Ed's stories, a precious lot including the young Ed's travels and the initial bloom of his love for Will's mother, with sidetracks for circuses and werewolves, spies and Siamese twins. In its fable-like, lesson-oriented short stories, it's like Forrest Gump without the retardation or late-stage diabetes. It's also pretty fun, gently amusing and touched with grand romantic gestures expressed in lovely visual terms by Burton and Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot. Ewan McGregor plays the young Ed with roguish charm, and Alison Lohman makes a luminous younger model of Jessica Lange as Ed's understanding life mate. Burton's current mate, Helena Bonham Carter, turns up in a sort of dual role, as a neighborhood witch and a woman who may or may not be Ed's secret love (the height of mixed-emotion panic for any son investigating his father).
The titular metaphor is about as far as the film goes, and the filmmakers approach it from every angle. "The biggest fish in the lake gets that way by never getting caught," it's said, and Ed styles himself as the slippery big fish which needs room to roam. Don't white-picket fence me in, he seems to say, and though Crudup's furrowed son comes off as churlish at first, Burton helps us to see Finney's old Ed, increasingly, as being as exasperating as he is charismatic. In the end, tell wins the battle of show versus tell, with Crudup's inevitable assumption of his father's role. This gut emotional payoff will pull the emotional carpet out from under all but the most deadset detractors.
Zestless at first, Big Fish takes a while to build up a head of steam and only really takes off in its "surprise ending." For adults, it's a mostly facile exercise that reflects the eternal mystery of who your parents really are without actually plumbing its depths, but on the other hand, it makes for a superior children's movie, with McGregor in the traditional Danny Kaye role. Don't expect profundity, and you can enjoy a swim in Burton's small pond.