Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 12/25/03

How puzzling it is that Ewan McGregor’s most famous role to date, that of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, is his most boring. Although I’ve not been particularly thrilled with his performances in those films (light-saber-rattling is fine, but it’s not really the same as acting), I’ve loved almost everything else I’ve seen from him. In Big Fish, he plays the young, flashback version of Albert Finney, who continually regales everyone he knows with fanciful, quasi-supernatural, decidedly unbelievable stories about himself and his life. In other words, McGregor gets to do all the stuff Finney says he did. Written by John August (from the novel by Daniel Wallace) and directed by Tim Burton, Big Fish is the cinematic equivalent of a big fish story—fun, entertaining, too crazy to be true, and all the more enjoyable for it.

In the mold of a fairy tale but with Burton’s undeniably weird style, the film follows the attempt by Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) to sort out the truths and fabrications of the now famously overblown life story of his dying father Ed (Finney), who insists that everything he has ever told his son is true. The fact that Will doesn't believe him has caused a rift lasting since the day Will married his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard) and his dad monopolized the wedding guests with his outrageous yarns. But now that Ed has been diagnosed with cancer, Will makes a last-ditch attempt to ascertain the true story, however boring, uneventful, or self-incriminating it might be. Lucky for us, he still gets the old familiar version.

As part of this film’s success lies in its twists, turns, and surprises, I must warn readers that the following may contain elements best left a secret. If you have not seen the movie yet, you might want to stop here and come back after you have.

Ed’s tale is full of larger-than-life characters, none larger than himself, and it begins when he is a 10-year-old boy (played by Perry Walston). Seeking to either prove or dispel rumors about an elderly one-eyed woman (Helena Bonham Carter) who lives in a spooky old house at the edge of town and is reported to be a witch, he pays her a visit and asks to peek under her eye patch. According to local legend, one can see the circumstances of his death by looking into the old lady’s glass eye. Though we don’t get to see Ed’s demise, he apparently does, and he therefore reasons that since he knows how he goes, he doesn’t ever need to fear dangerous things he does or encounters. It would be a bit freeing, I suppose, if you see yourself as an old man keeling over into a bowl of oatmeal, you’d know not to fear sky-diving or bungee jumping or unsafe sex. Just watch out for oatmeal.

After growing up in the small town of Ashton, Alabama, Ed’s subsequent adventures include making friends with a giant (played by 7’6”-tall Matthew McGrory), leaving home to discover a small town where no one wears shoes, and meeting his wife Sandra (played in flashbacks by Allison Lohman and in present-day scenes by Jessica Lange). He also serves in occupations as varied as a circus worker, a wartime soldier, a door-to-door salesman, and a bank robber, among other things. Along the way he meets a poet laureate (Steve Buscemi), a lycanthropic ringmaster (Danny DeVito), a two-headed woman (Ada and Arlene Tai), and another mysterious woman who played an important part in his life (also Bonham Carter).

This movie is certainly an entertaining romp through a varied collection of settings, characters, and scenarios, and at first does seem to fit Will’s assessment of his father’s story: “It doesn’t all make sense and most of it didn’t happen.” But as the film progresses, thanks to Burton’s own clever storytelling and a key final scene, we see that with minor alterations most of the bizarre details can indeed be reconciled with reality. That and his eye for imagery combine to make this a wondrously tall tale with a supernatural twist. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail