Big Fish

in Comedy, Dick Flicks, Drama, Fantasy

Dick Flick Pick

  • Stars: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney
  • Director: Tim Burton
  • Writers: John August (screenplay), Daniel Wallace (novel)

Screenwriter John August is well-known for his inventive adventures with director Tim Burton, and their adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel “Big Fish,” while more grounded in the real world than one might expect, will not disappoint fans of any of these men’s work.

Will Bloom, played for the most part by Billy Crudup, has endured a lifetime of tall tales spun by his father Ed (Ewan McGregor in flashback, Albert Finney in the present).  Resentful of these self-aggrandizing lies, Will has even cut off communication with his father, relying instead on his accommodating mother Sandra (Jessica Lange) to act as transcontinental go-between.  But when Ed’s declining health takes a sudden drastic turn, Will flies home in a last-ditch attempt to uncover the true man behind the fabrications before it’s too late.

But Ed is unwilling or unable to oblige him, spinning yarn after yarn instead of answering Will’s questions directly.  These quasi-biographical tales of twelve-foot giants, witches with prescient eyeballs, and supernatural feats of athleticism shed but cryptic light on the man who is Ed Bloom.  Frustrated by his father’s lies but cajoled by his mother and his wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard), Will must decide if the man he longs to know is worth the effort to find him.

The film, much like Ed Bloom’s fables, does not adhere to either linear structure or the physical laws that govern the known universe, paving the way for a stupendously surreal journey into unimagined lands.  The flashback sequences (as enacted by McGregor) are vivid, fanciful, and thoroughly engrossing in and of themselves.  You know said events could not have unfolded as described, and yet you’re desperately hoping that they did.  As Ed’s worried entourage tries, between mythical retellings, to manage the realities of dying, it’s easy to feel Will’s heart slowly breaking.  Perhaps Ed is truly an unconventional but caring father, or perhaps he’s just a self-centered jackass.

As is often the case with such a fairy tale style of storytelling, the women (and many of the men) are relegated to instantly recognizable, non-dimensional archetypes in supporting roles, thus rendering the exquisite “Big Fish” a dick flick.  As writer John August himself acknowledges regarding the Bechdel test, there’s “only a brief moment with Sandra and Josephine” when the two major females speak to each other at all.  (Although to be fair, Mr. August, the twin entertainers also exchange lines.  Do Ping and Jing count as one woman, or two?)

The Not-A-Dick Flick axiom relies only on the presence of leading female roles, regardless of stereotyping, though such gender stereotypes are often a hallmark of dick flicks.  Do these female archetypes – the doting wife and mother, the unattainable true love – detract from this particular film’s impact?  Maybe a little, if you’re attuned to the issue and you let it affect you.  But “Big Fish” is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are built on archetypes.  Look at Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel – Not-A-Dick Flicks all, and not a three-dimensional character in sight.

Fairy tales are not meant to replicate the nitty gritty of real life.  They weave fantastical webs of metaphor and hyperbole and, in doing so, highlight core truths in the world.  In “Big Fish,” the tall tales’ glorious flights of imagination throw the poignancy of the quieter story into sharp relief, and the resulting magic is well worth experiencing.

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