Big Fish

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer;” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”
– from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
“Big Fish,” a gentle, fantasy/reality, comedy/drama directed by Tim Burton, continues the time-honored Southern tradition of spinning yarns that are mostly true – with some stretchers thrown in just to keep things interesting.
Five-time Academy Award nominee Albert Finney stars as Ashton, Alabama’s favorite son, Edward Bloom, a big man with a big heart, a smooth tongue, and a vivid imagination. He is a Big Fish in a small pond. Billy Crudup plays Will, Bloom’s estranged son who, fed up with his father’s “lies,” left home to become a journalist. The two men haven’t spoken to each other in three years. Then Will gets the news that his father is dying. He flies home to spend those last days trying to find out who Edward Bloom really is.
Edward tells the story of his life from his own perspective, unwilling to admit that any of his tales are the least bit untrue, for Edward Bloom, much like Don Quixote, does not see life as it is, but life as it should be. He leaves it to Will to sort out the fact from the fiction.
“Most men will tell you a story straight through,” Edward explains. “It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting, either.”
Ewan McGregor (deep sighs from all the teenage girls) plays Bloom as a young man, the hero of Finney’s “fish stories,” and in Southern parlay-ence, he tells some whoppers. There is his encounter with a giant, his adventures in the ethereal town of Spectre, his time with the circus, his encounter with a were-dog (press material says it was a werewolf, but I know a were-dog when I see one!), and his secret mission behind enemy lines during the Korean war.
Will isn’t buying any of it, and goes on his own search for truth, only to find he is not that different from his father. “In telling the story of my father’s life, it doesn’t always make sense,” Will says. “But that’s what kind of story this is.”
“Big Fish” makes fabulous use of character actors like Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, and Robert Guillaume, Danny Elman’s music score is spot on, and Colleen Atwood’s costume design is both historically accurate and delightfully whimsical. But it is director Tim Burton who is the man behind the curtain. While he is best known for his dark, more macabre features like “Sleepy Hollow” and “Edward Scissorhands,” Burton proves he can have a light, deft touch as well as a heavy hand.
Helena Bonham Carter appears in a variety of roles – in some of which it is nearly impossible to recognize the English beauty. And Academy Award winner Jessica Lange delivers a simply breathtaking performance in the small but pivotal role of Bloom’s wife, Sandra.
“Big Fish” is by no means a “Christian” movie, yet like so much of Southern literature it is God-Haunted. Watch closely and you’ll see references to David and Goliath; Moses grasping the snake that turns into a rod; Jacob laboring for years to win Rachel; Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek; and an unmistakable allusion to baptism. Edward Bloom is constantly thirsty, (blessed are those who hunger and thirst…). Allusions to the river, the rain, water (each a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Let him who has ears to hear…) permeate the film. And it is one of the few movies I’ve seen in years that truly honors marriage. For Edward Bloom there are only two women in the world, his wife – and everyone else. It’s examination of the bond and the chasm between fathers and sons is remarkable.
“Big Fish” also engenders some great discussions on the difference between “Truth” and “Facts.” Edward, like Jesus, tells truth wrapped in story. We call them parables. So, was the story of the Prodigal Son “True?” Certainly. Was it a “Fact?” Hmmmm. There are enough parallels to keep a Sunday School discussion going for a month.
Do I recommend “Big Fish?”
Yes – but with a couple of pretty big caveats:
First, this movie is NOT suitable for young children. There is a small amount of crude language, a few shots of mostly blurred nudity, and a couple of scenes that are downright scary.
Second, “Big Fish” meanders across the screen with the mellow grace and pent up energy of the Alabama River. Like hooking that crafty old whopper that always seems to get away, the story twists and turns, jerks and then goes slack, keeping you guessing, musing, and wondering. Make no mistake, Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney may have the lead roles, but it is The Story that is the star of “Big Fish.” To enjoy it you have to be willing to swallow the story – hook, line and sinker.
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