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Fillet of Fish


Big Fish

Tim Burton, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.0



Posted: January 16, 2004

By Laurence Station

As a pure visual stylist, Tim Burton operates in a class by himself. What he lacks in depth, he more than compensates for with an appealingly fanciful brand of eye-candy. In films like Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, Burton stamps the proceedings with a distinct cinematic fingerprint that reflects the director's adoration of nightshade color schemes and playfully morbid thematic underpinnings. Adapting Daniel Wallace's popular novel Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, then, would seem right up Burton's alley. Big Fish, after all, is all about telling an entertaining story full of larger-than-life characters and fantastical adventures. And, true to form, Big Fish forsakes character development in favor of the engaging surface image.

Albert Finney plays the dying Edward Bloom, an Alabama-born teller of tall tales, who has spent his entire life embellishing encounters and situations to the point that what actually happened has lost all meaning. Spending time with Edward during his final days are devoted wife Sandra (Jessica Lange), his estranged journalist son William (Billy Crudup), and William's pregnant, Parisian bride, Josephine (Marion Cotillard). Edward, naturally, takes advantage of all the deathbed attention to once again relate the story of his wildly exaggerated life. Through flashbacks, we follow Ewan McGregor as young Edward, traipsing about Alabama and far beyond, encountering gentle giants, lycanthropy-afflicted circus barkers, and Siamese-twin showgirls.

Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who filmed Burton's Planet of the Apes and won an Oscar for A River Runs Through It, certainly imagines a vibrant, appropriately fabulistic world for Edward's inflated adventures. Unlike in most Burton movies, green is the primary color here, as opposed to the usual blue (or black-and-white). As a result, Big Fish bursts with life and a genuine sense of wonder. It proves without question the most life-affirming, feel-good work in Burton's gloomy oeuvre. And thanks to John August's cleverly structured screenplay, there's even an honestly earned tearjerker moment near the end as Edward meets his maker.

What we don't get with Big Fish, however, is a sense of closure between father and son. Poor William, on the verge of becoming a father himself, desperately attempts to connect with the dad who, thanks to service in the war and work as a traveling salesman, was hardly around while his son was growing up. Scenes that might have been mined for real emotional impact, such as having Edward attempt to justify or explain why he sought fulfillment outside his family, are instead used to let the man launch into yet another tall tale. A lame stab at revealing infidelity at the root of the Edward's wildly fanciful tales backfires as well, showing him instead as a dedicated husband and thus offering little insight into what actually makes him tick.

Big Fish does play, albeit peripherally, with the obvious but perfectly acceptable notion of a small town Southern boy yearning to be a Big Fish in the world, more than a jocular hick from the sticks. But with Burton, there's little time to delve into a character's psyche when the image of a car in a tree or a beautiful mermaid can be conjured instead. As a visual feast, Big Fish is a full and satisfying meal. As a study of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the difficulty of communication therein, it's barely an appetizer.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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