Big Fish

(Tim Burton, USA, 2004)


Although the wildly imaginative director Tim Burton (Batman [1989], Ed Wood [1994]) is almost universally respected both inside and outside the Hollywood machine, the acclaim his films receive has rarely been matched by box-office returns.

This is a fatal combination for anyone working within the American industry, as filmmakers from Terry Gilliam to Martin Scorsese have learnt.

It is particularly a problem for someone like Burton who needs big-budget resources to release his extravagant visions. Perhaps in an effort to avoid becoming an eccentric outcast like Gilliam, Burton has turned his talents to Big Fish, scarily couched by studio publicists as "in the tradition of Forrest Gump".

Opinions rapidly polarised on this career-saving move by Burton. Either Big Fish is the evidence of a newfound maturity – meaning that its sentimentality can wring audience tears – or it is a fatal sell-out, a betrayal of everything dark and idiosyncratic in Burton’s sensibility.

Actually, Big Fish bears less relation to Forrest Gump than to a cycle of wacky films from the early 1980s including The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) and The World According to Garp (1982) – lightly surrealistic fare pedalling sanctimonious New Age sermons about self-discovery, and usually placing an individual’s journey within a cosmic cycle of seasons, generations and voyages back and forth between real and imaginary worlds.

The theme of family has taken on renewed importance in contemporary American culture, as the nation "pulls together" in the face of global hostility and resentment. It is a theme largely foreign to Burton, whose sense of community is far more fluid – how could it be otherwise for the artist who first conjured Pee-wee Herman on the big screen? – and whose opinion of his homeland has often been sardonic, as in the acidly prescient comedy of alien invasion, Mars Attacks! (1996).

But in Big Fish, Burton serves up an all-American tale of father-son bonding which is pure slop. Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) is an old man who has spun his entire life into a vast tall tale. As he relates it, he was a romantic, an adventurer, an intrepid entrepreneur. Ed’s insistently magical story crosses international boundaries (during the Korean War) as effortlessly as Uma Thurman cleared airport customs control with her magnificent sword displayed in Kill Bill (2003).

But Ed’s son, Will (Billy Crudup), is having a hard time accepting these stories as the true measure of the man who tells them. A grumpy, alienated citizen of the modern world, Will desperately seeks authenticity and transparency. But Ed, even on his deathbed, will not play by Will’s rules. So Will is forced to dig into the past, looking for the traces that might disprove what he suspects are his father’s lies, and reveal the dark, hidden side of the family’s shared fantasy.

Like those other freewheeling, saccharine movies of the ’80s previously mentioned, Big Fish tends to regularly lose grip of its tone, plunging itself into unfathomable ambiguities. This is especially so whenever the story alights on the town of Spectre, a dream-image of Americana where time stands still and seemingly innocent, old-fashioned virtues prevail. Or do they? Burton has a bet every which way here, hesitating between Gump-style reverie and horror-movie Gothic reversals.

Masculine tales of heroic journey, from The Odyssey to Little Buddha (1993), always create contradictions for themselves when it comes to slotting in roles for women. Ed’s wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange), is in many respects the essential pivot of this story – the reason for Ed’s impulsive romanticism, the force that holds the family together – but she is also a blank, stay-at-home prop, a pure fantasy projection. Lange does what she can to give this thankless role some warmth, but she cannot budge the implacable male-centeredness of the narrative.

The same holds for Helena Bonham Carter’s classically dual role as The Witch and Jenny, the adoring little girl that Ed left behind in Spectre. The story told to Will by grown-up Jenny comes close to blowing the whole film apart, with its acknowledgment of the neurotic restlessness and malaise of desire which so often underwrite the male hero’s ever-wandering journey.

But Burton, working from John August’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel, erases these undertones as fast as possible in order to reach a shamelessly manipulative ending that lets just about every character off the hook.

Certainly, there are excellent moments and touches all throughout Big Fish. The picaresque, digressive story creates a good role for Steve Buscemi as a would-be bank robber, and a colourful, running cameo for Matthew McGrory as Karl, a friendly giant. Burton’s customary ability to blend production design, music, acting and camerawork is well in evidence.

Big Fish is one of those murky Hollywood films that simultaneously reels audiences in and repels them. It is hard not to get a little lost, emotionally, in the double whammy of Ed’s past glories and Will’s present-day searching. But it is also easy to smell something rotten in this blubbery, fishy tale.

MORE Burton: Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

© Adrian Martin February 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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