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Big Fish Print E-mail
Wednesday, 10 December 2003
Adapting Daniel Wallace's novel "Big Fish" as a movie was clearly a tricky propostion, and hasn't been dealt with entirely satisfactorily, though director Tim Burton is clearly doing very good work. It's highly likely that those who have not read the book (most of the audience, of course) will enjoy the movie more than those who have. Peculiarly, the oddest misstep is that the ultimate message of the movie is almost exactly the opposite of that of the novel. The cause of this unusual difference is an attempt to make the movie as heart-warming as possible, which was not Wallace's goal in the book.

The short novel was inspired by events in Wallace's own life, and tells about how a son tries to understand his dying father. All his life, the often-absent father (a travelling salesman) told his son joke after joke, and spun one tall tale after another. Some of them became quite fanciful, involving witches, giants, enchanted underwater towns, mermaids and so forth. But the father never talked about his daily reality, about his ideas and beliefs, and on the brink of his dad's death, the son is frustrated in his attempt to dig deeper.

The novel is itself fanciful -- for example, the father dies at least three times -- and ultimately comes to the conclusion that he never will understand his dying father to a greater degree than he already does. These stories and jokes are all he's going to get from the old man, so he will have to learn to be content with them -- and he does. He concludes that what we leave behind us are the stories we tell other people, and that immortality, such as it is, lies in those stories being passed on. It's a bittersweet ending, but dryly humorous and intelligent, like the book itself.

Although the ultimate ending of the movie is the same as the book's, not to be revealed here, what happens just before the ending is radically different from what happens in the novel. Again, it's the sort of thing that shouldn't be revealed in a mere movie review, but let's say it's similar to the scene in "The Wizard of Oz" in which Dorothy exclaims "and you were there, and you were there...!"
William Bloom (Billy Crudup) is summoned home to Alabama by his mother Sandy (Jessica Lange); he arrives from Paris with his pregnant French wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard). His father, Edward (Albert Finney), is now confined to bed; he is rarely able even to swim in his beloved pool in the back yard. The end is near.

We see the story of Edward's life as he told it to his son, and a strange tale it is. As a boy, he was confined to bed for three years while undergoing a growth spurt that left him weak. He and some friends seek out the local witch (Helena Bonham Carter) whose glass eye predicts the death of anyone who gazes into it. Knowing how -- and in essence when -- he is going to die emboldens Edward.

As a young man (Ewan McGregor), he becomes the idol of his small home town for his athletic abilities. But the townspeople admire him even more when he undertakes the task of ridding the town of a giant who's been eating animals locally, and who, they fear, might begin on people.

Edward confronts the giant Karl (Matthew McGrory), and convinces him to join on a journey. The giant is basically a nice guy, and glad to go along. But Edward sets off on a different direction at one point, finding himself in a town so idyllic that the streets are lawns. Among those he finds there is poet Norther Winslow (Steve Buscemi) who came from the same town as Edward, but who hasn't been able to go any further. This involves shoes hanging from an overhead wire, and at first it looks like Edward will have to stay behind. He sees a beautiful woman in a stream at night, but she disappears.

He leaves the town and rejoins Karl. They arrive at a circus, where when Edward sees the love of his life, Sandy (Alison Lohman), time stands still (literally -- an excellent effect). He befriends the circus ringmaster and owner, Amos (Danny DeVito), who happens to be a werewolf.

Knowing he must find Sandy, and that she likes daffodils, Edward tracks her to her college. When she looks out her window, all she can see is a field of daffodils with Edward smiling in the middle.
They marry, and Edward becomes a traveling salesman, calling in favors from old friends (Norther, Amos, etc.) when he buys up a small town and falls in love with a woman (also Helena Bonham Carter) who lives there....

This is very unusual material for Tim Burton; only "Edward Scissorhands" of his previous movies has any resemblance to "Big Fish." (The title, incidentally, comes from a variation on the old phrase "a big fish in a small pond.") He seems to have been somewhat thrown by the narrative demands, and at times the movie becomes meandering instead of direct.

The script by John August is only moderately faithful to the novel; the book doesn't have a straight-ahead narrative, but instead is a collection of the father's stories, arranged roughly chronologically, with many returns to the present and to the father's bedroom. Once the tale of Edward's life begins in the movie, there are relatively few excursions back to the bedroom, at least until the end.

The warmth and sentimentality of the ending is appropriate to the tale the movie tells, but it has been added to the story. As mentioned earlier, it will probably affect those who haven't read the book more strongly than those who have. It is not the obligation of those who make movies based on outside sources to exactly recreate the experience of reading the book. Fidelity is not intrinsically a virtue, merely an aspect.

The cast is very well-chosen, and all are excellent, although it does strain belief a mite to have Carter play more than one role. Although McGregor doesn't look like Albert Finney as a young man, he's a suitable choice for the role (and as he ages, begins to resemble Finney). We can believe this slightly crotchety, wise-cracking dying old man was this fresh-faced, lively youth. The actors must have studied each other's movements and gestures, and this pays off very well.

Billy Crudup doesn't have much to do until the end other than to listen to Finney; Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard have even less to do, but it's great seeing Lange back in a major movie. And Alison Lohman is an excellent choice for Lange's character as a young woman. She has the same transparent luminosity and warmth of spirit.

Buscemi, DeVito and the others essentially have extended cameos rather than fully-developed roles (particularly DeVito), but they do enter into the picarasque, romantic-realistic mood of the movie.

It's full of special effects of many kinds, but they do not dominate the movie. The production design by Dennis Gassner and photography by Philippe Rousselot are both outstanding. Gassner has to create many sets that look essentially real, but which are also brushed with a touch of fantasy, since they're Edward's tall tales. Rousselot uses mostly low-key lighting, as if all daytime scenes were shot under overcast skies, but this, too, is entirely in keeping with the mood of the film.

The central problem with "Big Fish" is that sense of drifting through the story; because of the tale it tells, it's hard to get a grip on any of the characters, as they're almost all characters in fantastic stories. But it does reach an enchanted conclusion, endorsing the idea of fairy tales told to children, and many are going to be deeply moved by the unusual but appropriate ending.

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