Telling Tall Tales
Big Fish’s sunshine blinds us to Tim Burton’s past dark efforts.
Thursday, January 8, 2004
Tim Burton is all grown up and getting serious with this wildly scattershot tale of a dying old man and serial liar (Albert Finney) and his estranged son (Billy Crudup), who arrives at his father’s deathbed determined to separate fact from fiction in the stories of his father’s life. It’s all meant to be uplifting and sweet and moralistic, but Burton’s wild eye and chilly directing style are muffled here in favor of Forrest Gump-ish melancholy and cheesy, obvious attempts at heartstring-yanking that contrasts with his previous, darker work.
It’s as though the iconoclastic director was trying to play to the lowest common denominator, and tosses out his usual weird schtick in favor of cloying folksiness. That’s not a good thing for fans of Burton’s work, and Big Fish makes Edward Scissorhands seem absolutely earth-shattering in comparison. There are a few flourishes to enjoy, notably Matthew McGrory’s hulking, sad-eyed giant, who, to hear Edward Bloom (Finney) tell it, was his ticket out of the small-town life he lived as a young football hero/lothario/fabulist.
Bloom the younger is played by Ewan McGregor, who ratchets up the charm but still seems to be a paper construct, more myth than substantive characterization. And so when he meets the local witch (Helena Bonham Carter) or wanders into a spectral village that may or may not be Heaven, or woos Alison Lohman’s Sandra with a field of 10,000 daffodils, the magic and whimsy both overwhelm and fall flat. Sandra is later played by Jessica Lange, who has both the smallest and best role in the film. Her love for her hyperbolic husband is palpable, and when she and Finney (struggling behind a Deep South accent) appear together they feel like the only honest thing in the film.
The film is based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, and it has the tang of the literary fantasy about it, but it rarely makes for anything other than the most flimsy of Burton’s work. And while there are supposedly a lot of heavy ideas going on in the story—Crudup and Finney’s reconciliation in the face of death, vague notions of the healing power of tall tales and outright lies—Big Fish never quite jells, or means anything much at all except as proof that Burton can make a gorgeous picture when he feels like it.
Thank cinematographer Philippe Rousselot for that: He shoots the scenes with appropriately wide grandeur, and bathes the whole thing in candy colors so vibrantly sugar-spun they make you jittery. Burton is a stylist to the end—Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Mars Attacks! are less films and more exercises in the excess of the bizarre, but unlike those films Big Fish feels like a sham, all tripe and not enough of Burton’s gothic childlike mindset, and also infused with a heavy saccharine dose of big-hearted Life Lessons that drop from the screen like anvils made of rock candy.
Burton’s best work—Ed Wood springs to mind, and Beetlejuice as well—marries mordant humor to twisted love stories (and what was Ed Wood but a man locked in an abusive relationship with the very nature of cinema itself?) and spooky, borderline mad visual grace notes that linger in the mind’s eye forever after.
That’s the Tim Burton so many people of slightly darker persuasions fell in love with. This new, unimproved version of Hollywood’s reigning misfit of the dark is dappled with faux sunshine and cheerfully bland schmaltz, a transition that may win him new fans, but alienate everyone who ever treasured a copy of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.
Big Fish [2 stars]
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Matthew McGrory, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny De Vito, Steve Buscemi
(Rated PG-13, 110 min.)