True Lies in Burton's Fish Tale
By Fernando F. Croce

It's not particularly odd, or surprising, that critics angling for a lazy comparison have been linking Tim Burton's new film Big Fish with that paragon of deceitful whiz-bang, Forrest Gump. After all, both films are awash in compulsive Southern yarn-spinners, doltish heroes pingponging through historical events and an insistence on the supposedly transcendental power of tall tales. In short, just what I tend to avoid in a movie. Burton's admirers -- and I am certainly one -- should not worry, however. Despite the previews working overtime hawking it as the feel-good event of the season, the picture is far from Gump's brand of reactionary, time-tripping whimsy. Working from screenwriter John August's condensation of Daniel Wallace's novel, Burton has created an eye-filling meditation on creativity, analyzing (and celebrating) the human impulse of bullshitting splendors out of thin air.

The picture's self-aggrandizing fabulist, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), is a jowly bullfrog of a man who, in his late 60s and dying of cancer, still insists on regaling the tallest of tales in his molasses drawl to anybody within earshot. One not amused by his incorrigible exaggerations is his son Will (Billy Crudup), who's grown estranged from the old man and moved away from their tiny Alabama burg to become a journalist (Hollywood's favorite unimaginative occupation). Learning that his dad may be running out of time, Bloom Junior jettisons back home, pregnant Parisian wife (Marion Cottilard) in tow, in hopes of making peace with him and, furthermore, figuring out the man from the myth. The yarns spun make up the spine of Big Fish, as Ed (played as a young go-getter by a jaunty, shiny-eyed Ewan McGregor) plies his door-to-door salesman trade while reeling in mattress-sized catfish, staring into the glassy peepers of witches and befriending sheep-eating behemoths.

All of this is as fantastical as it sounds, but Burton levels the inherent treacle of the elder Bloom's stretched anecdotes with his customary fondness for the odd. When young Ed stumbles upon a backwoods haven named Spectre (where the invaluable Steve Buscemi presides as an erstwhile poet), the place's smiling wholesomeness is so magnified as to give David Lynch the willies. (One nice touch: an old geezer strums "Dueling Banjos" on the porch.) In moments like this, one is relieved that, despite taking over a project originally set for Steven Spielberg, the man responsible for Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas is not asleep at the wheel.

For all his winks, though, Burton is no cynic -- the movie's flights of fancy are grounded in emotion rather than facile spectacle. During a circus performance run by a cheerfully oily ringmaster (Danny DeVito, natch), Ed spots his future bride Sandra (Alison Lohman) and time literally stands still as his gaze meets hers. A breathtaking moment of romantic yearning made impeccably visual, yes, but these visuals are crystallized by the feelings of the characters. It is this kind of feeling, served up without a smirk, that has some critics worrying about Burton "softening up" -- possibly because the idea of unembarrassed emotion goes against their image of the director as a dark, moody prankster. Truth be told, Burton, despite his anarchic, surrealist sensibility, has never been too far from the mainstream -- he is much closer to the gentle quirkiness of Spielberg, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis than to the darker fantasies of Lynch, Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Svankmajer.

What distinguishes him is not simply his evocative "darkness," but the depth of feeling that he can invest on the figures of bizarre outsiders, be they a pale misfit with blades for limbs or a neurotic woman finding refuge in a leather cat suit. Big Fish, more than any other Burton movie since the beautiful Ed Wood, brings these emotions to the fore. The softening I detected instead was in Burton's portrayal of the military, devastatingly skewered in Mars Attacks! but here heroically crashing a commie USO show in Korea. Despite a typically Burtonian appearance by conjoined-twin chanteuses, the sequence is a depressing example of post-9/11 artistic kowtowing. Nearly as dispiriting is the shortage of backbone on most of the female characters -- Lohman and Cottilard are wan specimens, though Helena Bonham Carter (doing double duty as a swamp waif and an old crone) and especially Jessica Lange pick up the slack. As the older Sandra, Lange is a glowing lioness, as in control of her glorious middle-aged self as Diane Keaton was in Something's Gotta Give. Too bad she doesn't have enough to do here.

And yet, despite the flaws, Big Fish enchants. Working with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Burton's delight in playing the illusionist and capturing the tall tales all but rivals his yarn-spinning hero's. He understands that stories, whether or not embellished past the breaking point, are an extension of the person telling them, and as such can be epiphanic, joyous and enlivening. By the time the film reaches its climax amid a whirling mix of fact and fiction, life and death, imagination and reality, its pat notions of the power of storytelling have been more than redeemed by creative and emotional reverberations. No lie.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on January 6, 2004.


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