“When the truth becomes legend, print the legend” is the advice a sage newspaper editor offers to wrap up John Ford’s essay in American mythologizing, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In wartime, of course, legend instantly supersedes truth—but that topicality won’t do much to help Tim Burton’s seasonal exercise in sentimental print-the-legendism, Big Fish.
From the perspective of Burton’s career, Big Fish (adapted from the novel by Daniel Wallace) is almost a grown-up story. Childish fantasy is certainly present—like the book, the movie is pickled in the sort of nostalgic magic realism practiced by Ray Bradbury back in the day. But Big Fish also retails a particular family drama; its high-concept pitch phrase could have easily been appropriated from Ján Kadár’s vintage heart-warmer, Lies My Father Told Me. How do we know what is true, when Daddy won’t tell us?
From the depths of the local lake to the far reaches of Communist East Asia, symbols abound. Will Bloom (or won’t he?), self-effacingly played by Billy Crudup, returns from Paris to Sweet Home Alabama, pregnant French wife (Marion Cotillard) in tow, to see the dying father, Ed (Albert Finney), from whom he’s long been estranged. Will is a journalist, and from his perspective, the old man is an incorrigible, garrulous bullshit artist who messed up his son’s impressionable mind with a series of fantastic, self-aggrandizing tall tales—dramatized in the movie with Ewan McGregor throwing himself into the role of the bright-eyed young Ed.
A childhood encounter with a neighborhood witch aside, Ed’s adventures begin in the early ’50s—to judge from the movie marquee advertising From Here to Eternity, if not this airbrushed Southern town’s local social mores. Ed confronts a giant in his lair, stumbles across a backwoods Brigadoon evocatively named Spectre, and joins a circus run by a cheerful werewolf (Danny DeVito). The ideas keep percolating, but in the absence of any particular tension, the movie has its longueurs. Danny Elfman’s score is uncharacteristically directed at the tear ducts, and time stands still—air full of popcorn—when Ed glimpses his future bride (Alison Lohman, eventually to be played by Jessica Lange).
Burton orchestrates some deadpan slapstick, and as always in his movies, the production design is impeccable. Big Fish‘s denatured American South and fastidiously cartoon-like mise-en-scène occasionally suggest a benevolent O Brother, Where Art Thou? Befitting a project at one point attached to Steven Spielberg (who evidently dropped it in favor of a slightly more adult exercise in mythomania, Catch Me If You Can), there is a contemporary landscape of symmetrical tract houses and more than a few visual references to The Wizard of Oz.
As Big Fish jumps back and forth between the legendary past and the prosaic present, the odd chronology has Ed fighting the Korean War—where he’s saved by a winsome pair of digitally designed Chinese conjoined twins—a little too late, and baby Will delivered by an African American GP a bit too early. In the ’60s, Ed settles down and becomes a traveling salesman—there’s a Bonnie and Clyde moment when he’s tricked into helping a long-lost associate (Steve Buscemi) rob a small-town bank. His toby-jug mug red from the exertion of breathing life into yet another bogus scenario, Albert Finney is enjoyably expansive—perhaps because nature abhors a vacuum. Big Fish is notably one of the few movies that McGregor doesn’t smirk his way through (why, one wonders), although Lange compensates somewhat with the big brave grin she brandishes.
Things grow ever Gumpier as Will’s own impending fatherhood treads heavily to the fore. An abundance of dull exposition building up to the son’s attempt to cap his father’s whoppers climaxes with a tedious flurry of Fellini-esque endings and Spielbergian fillips. The magic doesn’t work twice—or even once.