Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Resisting the Bair : Tim Burton’s Big Fish

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

RESISTING THE BAIT : Tim Burtons Big Fish

by Neil Young

Among current directors, Tim Burton must be most frustrating case of all gong and not much dinner. His projects invariably sound great, with offbeat storylines and strong personnel on both sides of the camera, and they lend themselves to eyecatching trailers and promotional materials. Expectation builds and builds, then the film opens and its well okay. This is perhaps why his mainstream, megabuck Planet of the Apes remake, though scorned by many critics, is arguably the most satisfying of his movies expectations, for once, were relatively low.

Big Fish, however, was heralded as a return to more offbeat, unclassifiably Burtonish territory. Adapted by John (Charlies Angels) August from a respected novel by Daniel Wallace, its is the story (or rather the stories) of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), a travelling salesman from Alabama. Though the actual circumstances of his life are seemingly somewhat mundane, Bloom has always embroidered and elaborated them into semi-fantastical tall tales to the point where his son Will (Billy Crudup) has become frustrated and estranged. But when the older Blooms health takes a terminal turn for the worse, the stage is set for an emotional father-son reconciliation and yet more of those very tall tales.

The film is thus structured as an episodic compendium of flashback absurdist/allegorical/homily-laden fables a kind of agnostic, post-modern Pilgrims Progress – in which we see the younger Edward (Ewan McGregor) encountering a giant, a mermaid, a witch (and the outsize catfish of the title) among other unlikely creatures and events. Theres also a typically oddball romance: Edward experiences love-at-first-sight for the beautiful Sandra (Alison Lohman as a teen, Jessica Lange as an adult). But to find out who she is, he must work for years at a circus gleaning tantalising details from the ringmaster (Danny De Vito) who happens to be a werewolf

Its not hard to see what attracted Burton to this project as well boasting various fairytale-ish characters, Big Fish explicitly locates its own authors (the director and writer) within the ancient oral traditions of storytelling: all that shamans-around-the-campfire guff you often hear trotted out by the winners on Oscar night. But crucial to any successful tale-telling is for its audience whether around the campfire or sitting in their comfortable cinema seat to suspend their disbelief.

And that often isn’t too easy with Big Fish, which never quite manages to establish itself in terms of time, place, or character. The fact that neither Finney nor McGregor are American let alone from the Deep South doesn’t help, despite their relatively convincing ole boy accents (Helena Bonham Carter likewise masks her Anglo tones in her extended cameo). More troubling, however, is the films rather off-hand treatment of chronology, which starts to feel unsatisfactory from the moment where were expected to accept McGregor, who looks all of his 32 years, as Edward at eighteen. The different characters don’t seem to age at the same rate as the stories unfold in an unfocussed time-frame that floats uncertainly between the fifties, sixties and seventies (and this must be the only film made set in Alabama during those decades which never once even mentions race-relations.)

Burton and August, however, would probably argue that Big Fish isnt about history or politics, but the relationships between people. Even here, however, the film doesn’t quite connect: Sandra pretty much vanishes from view once Bloom has finally managed to track her down, leaving Lange with virtually nothing to do. This is partly because Big Fish is the latest in the seemingly endless line of American films revolving around dysfunctional fathers and sons a subject in which the mothers are routinely (and insultingly) sidelined.

Then again, even the Edward-Will stuff is only sketchily convincing – they don’t talk to each other at all for three years over what seems a relatively minor incident. By the end, the two have settled their differences but Will, we realise doesn’t really know any more about Edwards real life than he did at the beginning (and nor do we). The (admittedly touching) finale suggests Edwards tales were exaggerations rather than complete fabrications, but still leaves too many questions frustratingly unanswered.

And what of the tales themselves? They all seem to be allegories for something, but its often difficult to work out exactly what. Several revolve around the spookily upbeat town of Spectre a place so easygoing it saps the creativity of a poet (Steve Buscemi) who becomes a resident after intending only to pass through. At first, Spectre seems unambiguously Stepford-sinister but when Bloom finds it fallen into disrepair, he spends much time, money and effort restoring it to its former glory.

Wallaces Big Fish is, don’t forget, subtitled A Novel of Mythic Proportions and its likely that August found condensing such proportions into two hours a near-impossible task. The material would probably be better suited to a multi-episode TV programme, each episode devoted to another of Edwards wild stories. Crammed into standard feature-film length, this feels more like an illustrated summary of the novel, rather than the fully-realised re-imagining which Burtons semi-visionary reputation might have led us to expect.

As it is, the director takes a dismayingly square approach, giving free rein to Danny Elfmans manipulative score and with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot – bathing many of the images in a slight but noticeable and saccharine golden glow. The results which variously recall O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fellinis circus pictures, and The Twilight Zone are mostly watchable, though there are times when we tire of Edwards stories just as much as Will (in theory, it should be impossible to nod off during a bank robbery featuring Steve Buscemi, but this reviewer very nearly succumbed.) Big Fish? Small fry would be nearer the mark.

29th January, 2004

by Neil Young