In his novel The Go-Between L.P. Hartley wrote, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Tim Burton expands on such a notion in his current Big Fish, and the proposition has become that the past is a different universe where things surreally grand are commonplace.
Adapted for the screen by John August from Daniel Wallace's novel, Big Fish is the story of a death-bed reconciliation between a father and son who haven't so much fought as failed to understand each other and drifted apart. Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) is dying in the small Alabama town where he's lived most of his life. Ed and his son, Will (Billy Crudup), haven't seen each other much in recent years, but at the behest of his mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange), Will comes from his journalist's job in the city to his father's bedside so that they can make peace before it's too late.
The reasons for the estrangement between father and son proceed most immediately from an event at Will's wedding when Ed (as we see in flashback) tells a long, wild story about the day of Will's birth. The wedding audience, including Will's French bride, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), is charmed by the story, but Will is angered because he thinks Ed is hogging center stage on an occasion when the father ought to be content to let the spotlight shine on the son. And here we have one of the film's central weaknesses; Ed's behavior appears genuinely loving, and Will's reaction seems a mysteriously resentful overreaction.
Eventually, Will makes clear that the wedding story was only the crowning example of a gripe he has nursed for many years. Instead of reading to Will when he was a child, Ed told him tall tales, always with Ed himself as the central character. Will loved his dad's stories, but he also believed them. And when he became old enough to discover that his father's adventures must surely have been exaggerations if not outright fabrications, Will felt first tricked then increasingly angered when Ed would never admit that his stories weren't true. Because Ed steadfastly maintains that his stories really happened, Will believes he's been denied the opportunity ever to know his father. And that's the core of his resentment.
Anyone familiar with Tim Burton's earlier work as the director of such films as Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and the first two Batman movies will hardly be surprised by the energy of the fantastical sequences that dramatize Ed's tales. These hyperbolic narratives tell how Ed (played in his youth by Ewan McGregor) develops superhuman skill while in high school where he stars on every sports team and takes first prize at the science fair, too. Then comes a life filled with adventure. He makes the acquaintance of a gentle giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), works as a stuntman in a circus, and woos Sandra (played in her youth by Alison Lohman) by buying every daffodil in three states. He becomes an astonishingly successful traveling salesman, secures his prosperity through an alliance with poet/bank robber/Wall Street investor Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi at his delightfully sleazy best). And then he earns honors as a Korean War hero who operates behind enemy lines and cements his friendship with conjoined crooners Ping (Ada Tai) and Ling (Arlene Tai). This is the very kind of otherworldly material that Burton does better than anyone in cinema.
Most of Ed's stories can be understood as pure exaggeration. But an episode in the small town of Spectre eludes analysis. At first we think the isolated community where everyone is blissful and no one wears shoes is a metaphor for heaven, but like a kaleidoscope, the account of the town twists and transforms in the movie's second half, and we don't know, then, how to interpret it at all. The picture is emotionally smart in the way it handles Ed's suspected affair with a pretty resident of the town named Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter), but we nonetheless lose our grip on what the town or even Jenny stands for.
Burton is more interested in images than actors, and one suspects that Big Fish's capable cast is utilized less than it might be. Still, the picture stages a monumental rally at the end, and I dare say it will touch anyone who has lost a parent, particularly a parent the bereaved child wishes to have known better. Moreover, the film works in canny closing observations about the relationship between the storyteller and the story. Will wants his father to tell him the truth to show who Ed really is. And gradually we get it: Ed has. The facts of the story may be altered or largely made up, but they nonetheless relate the truth of who Ed is. And in reference presumably to himself as well as any other narrative artist, Burton asserts forthrightly in voiceover that it's the stories that endure and it's through the stories that the storyteller achieves immortality.
- Young Ed (Ewan McGregor, right) returns from the war to his young bride, Sandra (Alison Lohman) in Tim Burton's latest, Big Fish.