Thursday 4 February 2010

Big Fish (2003)

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Alison Lohman, Robert Guillaume and Marion Cotillard
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I still don't know how I missed this one in 2003. I grew up being a little different from those around me in the eighties and so I identified to no small degree with the films Tim Burton made that were full of outsider characters: Batman and its sequel, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, not to mention Ed Wood, a fantasy which benefitted from being mostly true. Perhaps I missed this one because it was more recent, coming next in his filmography after his disappointing remake of Planet of the Apes. Yet I believe it's the best film he's made thus far, a very personal one that rings so true in its complex web of tall tales that it's almost palpable. I hadn't heard of it until I noticed it was a Top 250 movie and watched it in 2004 as a download on my laptop. A fresh viewing on DVD on a big screen TV merely reaffirms its power. The bigger the screen the better with this movie. The big fish of the title deserves to be huge.

We see the fish before we even see the title, but it's really a metaphor or rather a few of them tied together. Most obviously the big fish is Edward Bloom, the central character in the story, but it also refers to the idea that there are some fish that cannot be caught; they exist only as immortal stories because the chase is always better than the catch. Ed Bloom has been talking about one of these fish all his life, the one he calls the Beast that he's been chasing as long as he's been talking about it. He tells his son William that he caught it the day he was born, at least for enough of a moment to get back the wedding ring it swallowed when he used it as bait. He tells everyone else the same story too, over and over, until he finally pisses his son off by telling it at his wedding.

Perhaps it's because Will Bloom is just a footnote in the story, perhaps it's because he's heard it a thousand times or perhaps it's because he's come to the point where he doesn't believe a word his dad says any more. Probably it's all three put together, but whatever the reason, from that point they don't talk for three years until eventually the call comes that they're stopping the chemotherapy. Ed Bloom is dying of cancer, and Will and his wife fly out to be there, to be with him, but also so Will can find out just who his father really is, at a point in time when he's about to become a father himself.

All he knows are his father's tall tales, which are as tall as they come so obviously can't be real. As far as he was concerned the day he was born his dad was really out selling novelty products in Wichita because Will is as prosaic as his father is whimsical, and resents what his father calls facts and stories but which he sees as nothing but lies. He doesn't believe his father has ever told him a true thing, being 'like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined: just as charming and just as fake.' He sees them as strangers who know each other very well, a concept that he feels a need to address while he still can.

Obviously this is a huge deal for Will Bloom, just as this story was a huge deal for writer Daniel Wallace who wrote the source novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, being the first novel that he managed to sell. It was also something personal to Tim Burton at the time, as his father died in 2000 and his mother in 2002, just before he took this job, so it's easy to see catharsis in the production. It's very personal to me too because in many ways this is also my story, however much my father never consorted with giants, werewolves or Siamese twins, at least not that I know of. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2000 while I was travelling the States and I flew home to be with him and our family. He died in 2001 and his funeral was the revelation to me that Ed Bloom's is to his son at the end of Big Fish.
Every detail about Ed Bloom's life is strange, at least the way he tells it, from the moment of his birth when the doctor dropped him and he slid down the corridor like a bowling ball. As a child he was the only one with guts enough to knock on the door of the town witch, the one with a glass eye that has the magical power to show you your own death. He's always the one with the guts, partly because the knowledge of how and when he's going to die doesn't scare him the way it scares the crap out of his friends, it merely tells him that he's going to survive everything else. He always has a different perspective on everything to everyone around him.

This is the primary reason that he's so fascinating, not the fact that he seems to live a charmed life. Sure, he made every winning touchdown, scored every winning basket in the last second of the game, constructed every winning science fair exhibit. He even saved a dog from a burning house before the firemen got there, every cliché in the book, but the key to all those events isn't that he's a star, it's that he made a difference. That's what he's really about. He was the biggest thing there was in Ashton, AL until one day a stranger arrives, a twelve foot giant that eats all the sheep and prompts the expected mob with raised pitchforks, but even then he saves the day by persuading the giant to leave through the intriguing concept of going with him. After all, Ashton, AL was too small for his ambitions too.

We watch Ed Bloom in the form of two actors. The old Ed is Albert Finney, a powerful presence on screen from his first outings in the early sixties in The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tom Jones, which brought him his first Oscar nomination. Here he manages to somehow be a mischevious imp bursting with life while still being a frail old man in his death bed soon to be hospitalised with a stroke. He even manages to tell us jokes we've heard a number of times before and surprise us with the punchline. That's the art of storytelling. The young Ed is Ewan MacGregor, who manages to redeem himself through this film for the cinematic abortion that was The Phantom Menace. He's the means by which we see the stories that old Ed tells and he's excellent. He even gets the best non-fight scene since Indy pulled the gun on the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

As you might expect from a Tim Burton movie, the cast is full of memorable supporting actors including a few that were already regulars in his films. Given that the story unfolds as a set of tall tales, there's plenty of room for a large cast and many actors are given plenty of opportunity to shine. Also as you might expect from a Tim Burton movie, the main supporting actors are there to ground the story, so while Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange are fine as Will Bloom and his mother Sandra respectively, our attention mostly goes elsewhere, and I don't mean to Marion Cotillard as Will's wife Josephine or Robert Guillaume as the doctor who's taking care of his dad.
Most obvious is Matthew McGrory, who plays Karl the Giant. McGrory was a real giant, though he was a mere 7'6” when he died in 2005 at the sadly young age of 32 rather than the 12' he seems to be for much of this film. He looks like a huge and misshapen Ben Mankiewicz. Least obvious may be Destiny Cyrus, making her debut on screen here as Ruthie. She's better known today as Miley Cyrus, who every young girl in the world would apparently recognise as Hannah Montana. Which one was Ruthie again? My favourites have to be Ada and Arlene Tai, who are real twins but not the Siamese twins they play here. There's a fantasy or two there, that's for sure, and I'm not talking about rescuing them from Korea.

Danny De Vito, so memorable for Burton as the Penguin in Batman Returns, is Amos Calloway, the owner and ringmaster of Calloway Circus, looking more than a little like Ron Jeremy, especially when he's naked. He's also a werewolf, which perhaps could explain a lot about Mr Jeremy too, come to think about it. It's at Calloway's circus that Ed first sees the love of his life, immediately convinced that he's going to marry her even though he has no idea who she is. Calloway is so manipulative that he hires Ed on the terms that he'll tell him one thing about her for every month he works at the circus for free. His lawyer, Mr Soggybottom, is Deep Roy, who played all the Oompa Loompas in Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Steve Buscemi plays Norther Winslow, the last man before Ed Bloom to leave Ashton. He's a poet who aims for Paris but only gets as far as Spectre, a mysterious hidden town on the other side of the jumping spiders, from which nobody apparently leaves, not least because an eight year girl steals their shoes and throws them onto the phone cable at the edge of town. After Ed Bloom proves that it's possible to leave, Winslow follows suit and reoccurs throughout the movie and is as welcome anywhere in this story as Buscemi is anywhere in a movie. Finally there's Helena Bonham Carter, who seems to find a part in every film Tim Burton makes. She finds two of them here, playing a very memorable witch as well as Jenny, that eight year old girl, at two very different stages of her adult life.

Will Bloom has heard about all these characters all his life. He knows their stories by heart but he never believed any of them were real, taking them as just the necessary characters to flesh out his father's Baron Munchaüsen complex. He finds that they're all real, though perhaps a little exaggerated, just like the stories they inhabit and the lessons they teach. There are real rules to live by here, not least that the more difficult something is, the more rewarding it becomes. I'm also partial to the suggestion that it's rude to talk about religion, as you never know who you're going to offend. It goes without saying that you should never argue about romance with a Frenchwoman.

The biggest discovery Will learns is that his father made a difference to a lot of people, not least to him, and there's so much truth in this that it's impossible to not to find a tear or three as he comes to that realisation. This is especially true for me, given the similarities. Ed Bloom was a travelling salesman who conjured up flamboyant stories, whereas my father was a teacher who mostly kept himself to himself unless perhaps the Scotch was flowing. However the way in which they made a difference is precisely the same. After his funeral, which was not in a small church but one which still ran out of seats, I stood with my mother and sister as people left and they told us stories of how he had made every difference in the world to them. He didn't ask for reward, he didn't publicise what he did and in fact we didn't know many of these people at all until they turned up to pay their respects. I learned an important lesson that day, the same one that Will Bloom learns in this film. My father was a big fish too.

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