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Monday, May 10, 2010

Maythew #2: Big Fish (2003)

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Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter

If you think of Tim Burton's films as the cinematic equivalent of the Munster family, then surely Big Fish is the Marilyn of the group. Quirky but much more gently so than the rest of Burton's output, the film is something of a departure for the director, who really seems to be reigning himself in here. For the most part it works, though I don't think it quite achieves its ambitions.

Big Fish tells the story of a father (Albert Finney), his son (Billy Crudup), and the stories that stand between them. The son, Will, has grown up to be resentful of his father's storytelling abilities and feels marginalized amongst the large cast of bizarre and fanciful characters in his father's narrative. The father, Ed, insists that his stories are true and has no qualms about telling them over and over again. Now the father is dying and the son wants to seize his last opportunity to really get to know him, to know the truth behind his tall tales.

The flashback scenes, in which Ed is played by Ewen McGregor, unfold in episodic form, detailing his many adventures. He leaves his small town in the company of Karl (Matthew McGrory), a giant, stumbles into a utopia in the middle of the woods, meets his soulmate, joins the circus, goes missing in Korea and makes his way back with a set of conjoined twins, accidentally gets involved in a bank robbery, and so on. Will doesn't believe any of this but slowly finds evidence that, at the very least, his father's stories aren't complete fabrications. The line between truth and fiction becomes blurrier and blurrier until it seems that one can no longer exists without the other. As Will states at the end: "A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him and in that way he becomes immortal."

Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a charming movie but one that doesn't entirely work - or, at lest, doesn't work in the way that it wants you to think that it works. It is visually sumptuous and its exploration of the art of constructing a story is well done, but the relationships that should make up the heart of the film get short shrift. Except for Ed, the characters are secondary to the stories rather than the stories being used as a means of developing the characters. As a result the ending doesn't have quite the emotional punch that it could and the film itself doesn't resonate that much.

Matt's Thoughts: I really want to like this picture, but there's just something about it that I can't quite identify that's putting me off. I think that part of the problem is the fairytale aspect of the plot. We're lead to believe, at the beginning, that Edward is just fabricating insane lies, but it's when Sandra confirms that he had gotten lost during the war that we begin to think otherwise. It's only a little later when William is cleaning the pool and the big fish surfaces in the water, that he has this moment of realization that either his father has been telling the truth all these years, or that he has started hallucinating. The truth seems confirmed later still when Helena Bonham-Carter tells a story involving the giant tilting her house back to its original position.

It's the fact that, as the film closes, we're told that he was, indeed, exaggerating his tales for entertainment purposes, that you wonder if Helena's story was truly as majestic as it appeared, or if William had just exaggerated it in his mind's eye to fit it into the mold of his father's usual stories.

I think my problem is that I wanted it to be all or nothing: either full-out fairytale, or just insane lie after insane lie. But I can't really fault the movie for this, because, at it's core, it's the tale of a father and son; like Field of Dreams, but with fewer dead baseball players.

I didn't hate the movie, I just didn't love it either. But that might be because I find Miley Cyrus kind of irritating; although, in this role, she was still Destiny Cyrus...which is kind of more irritating.

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