Father's Day comes up this weekend, so here's a dad-themed movie for the occasion - from 2004, Tim Burton's Big Fish:
"There are some fish that cannot be caught," says Edward Bloom, beginning a fishy story he's told friends and family many times in his ever more unhurried Alabama drawl. By the time young Edward (Ewan McGregor) has mellowed and thickened into old Edward (Albert Finney), he's learned that, like a good julep, a good story should be savored and relished and each leaf chewed over. In the first few moments of the film, we see Edward telling the story of his "big fish" over and over across the decades, until, finally, he tells it at the wedding of his son Will.
Will is insulted. He's sick of the fish tale. He knows it backwards. And that his father cannot for this one day think of anything new, anything personal, anything that doesn't place Dad front and center, anything other than the same phoney-baloney yarn that reduces his son to an afterthought at his own wedding, is to Will an unforgiveable insult. He moves to Paris and is so determined to reject his fabulist pa that he becomes a copy-filer for the UPI news agency: that's his idea of a story – verifiable facts, names, dates, places, things that actually happened.
And then he gets word that his father is dying of cancer, and so he and his French wife fly home. He has no relationship with his dad, except insofar as he has been one more listener to the fish yarn and the other tall tales. He knows nothing about who his father really is or how he lived his life. And so, before the fish bore becomes the one that got away, Will determines to inflict some serious male bonding.
Tim Burton's Big Fish is about storytelling, about one man who loves it and another who feels cheated by it. It's odd watching Burton make a movie about storytelling where the telling of the story seems to engage it very fitfully. Big Fish was released in the same season as another movie about a son returning from Europe to be with his dying dad – Denys Arcand's Barbarian Invasions (a former Friday Feature here at SteynOnline). Both films concern the stories we tell ourselves to give our lives meaning. But Arcand wants to dig into the flashbacks to get at the character. Tim Burton prefers to use the character as a pretext to get at the flashbacks – the big spectacular Burtonian setpieces that evolve from Southern Gothic (spooky old houses in the swamps) to Brigadoon (magical villages where the streets are paved with grass) to Austin Powers (parachuting into a big Commie army show in South-East Asia). These scenes are beautifully rendered, lit in a heightened, stylized color, and they give you some idea of what Forrest Gump might have looked like if it had had any visual style.
By comparison, the bits in between have a difficult time. When he's a boy, Edward supposedly stares into a witch's glass eye and sees the manner of his death, and this knowledge liberates him from the faintheartedness with which most of us live our lives. That's a nice idea, but it goes mostly undeveloped. I don't know whether this is the fault of Burton, his screenwriter John August or the original novel, but take, for example, the first thing young Edward does when he sets out for adventure from his Alabammy town: he joins the circus. Is that really the best the supposedly boundless imagination of Tim Burton can do? Talk about over-tilled soil: the minute you see Danny DeVito as the Ringmaster, surrounded by dwarves, giants, wolfmen, etc, it feels as if Burton's watched Todd Browning's Freaks one too many times.
That suspicion is compounded when Edward's stint in the army is mostly an opportunity to introduce some hot-looking Siamese twins – actually, Korean twins, cabaret singers with their own heads, arms and breasts, but sharing one pair of long, long legs. For a film about one man's imagination, the way it illustrates is through the most obvious visual signposting – here's a giant, here's some conjoined twins. The lurid characters don't feel integrated into the story, just dropped in as connective gimmicks.
In fairness, this is also true of those characters who aren't carney folk. Ewan McGregor falls in love with a stranger he espies from afar and simply announces it to her. Alison Lohman is certainly lovely, but this short cut conveniently absolves Burton of the need to show their love. Just as fish stories tend to be a male activity, so this Big Fish story has little use for women. As Edward ages, the missus role gets taken over by Jessica Lange, who – except for one memorable image – has nothing to do except reaction shots. Same for the French daughter-in-law. And by the time Helena Bonham-Carter shows up you realize that, for all the talk of Edward's "womanizing", the movie is weirdly sexless. As for Will, Billy Crudup plays him as a mope and Burton doesn't care enough about his scenes to connect them up to the flashbacks. In a fish story, it's supposed to be the fish that gets away, not the story. That said, there's something appealingly daffy about watching a man as real as Albert Finney conjure (via Ewan McGregor) a gloriously overripe fantasy of a life. Burton bounces off an intriguing premise, and at its best moments has Finney and McGregor to give it a swaggering confident pitch. Big Fish has a hook, a line, but not quite a sinker.