[Our Sunday Visitor, Feb 1, 2004]
As usual, I made a big impression at the premiere of "Big Fish." The director, Tim Burton, had been pestering me to come, and at last I agreed to pop in. What was tricky, of course, is that my husband is losing patience with the film’s star, Ewan MacGregor, because he won’t give up. "Give up, Ewan," I keep telling him. "I’ve been married thirty years." But still the roses arrive almost daily. It’s a good thing I went, however, because I was needed to re-orchestrate the score, rescue a technician from the burning projection booth, translate all the dialogue for the Ambassador from Mongolia, and prevent lovesick Ewan from once again throwing himself out a window.
Does it matter that not a word of that is true? According to this film, no; made-up stories are better than dumb old real life, and anyone who objects to such vigorous self-embroidery is a sourpuss. Even Christian reviewers have been swept up in this enthusiasm, leaping from a sturdy point—that works of imagination can prepare folks for the Gospel—to a shakier one, that any tall tale is a blessing. Imagination sprung free induces wonder, and that’s always good, isn’t it?
That would have been an interesting question to explore, if "Big Fish" had taken it seriously. The story looks promising at first: Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has charmed people all his life with his preposterous self-flattering tales, which may hide a kernel of truth. They charmed his son, Will (Billy Crudup), for too long, until he realized he was being strung along and recoiled at the betrayal. He has good cause to be bitter. Edward’s stories aren’t just entertaining yarns, but self-promotion, grabbing for attention even on days that should be Will’s. Now Edward is dying, and Will has come home for a final encounter. Will there be a breakthrough, where father and son connect at last in honesty?
Nope. Instead, Will acquiesces in his dad’s impenetrable narcissism and offers him a final blaze of self-glorifying fantasy. This could have been an exquisitely poignant moment, as Will accepted that his dad would never be able to see his son as a valuable, interesting human being on his own. We would have admired Will’s sacrifice as he said goodbye in the only terms his dad allowed.
But we don’t get that-instead we’re supposed to believe that the old man’s truth-stretching was the right thing to do all along. Will was just being a stick-in-the-mud. The closing line (which, at the screening, was muffled by sniffly sobs throughout the audience) is, "A man tells stories so many times that they live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal."
You know, actually, there is another aspect to immortality.
Imagination can provide a springboard to faith or into an empty pond. "Big Fish" recommends tale-spinning as a satisfying end in itself, precluding the need for spirituality or any further dimension to life. You’re not even required to have honest, humble relations with those you supposedly love. But no matter how useful and enjoyable imagination is, you wouldn’t want to live there. Reality is God’s home address.
Having vented that, I have to say that this is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Albert Finney is extraordinary, and produces a Southern accent that is as natural as a bayou breeze-good work, especially in a Brit. He’s a joy to watch; less so is Jessica Lange, who is not given enough to do as his wife, Sandra. Edward’s life-long motivation is supposedly his devotion to Sandra, but her character is too immobile and sketchy for us to get what he sees in her. Maybe she’s just a screen he’s projecting his imaginary perfect wife on.
The film’s style switches deftly between the scenes involving worried Will and those depicting Edward’s absurd stories (in which his youthful character is portrayed by Ewan MacGregor, who is just going to have to leave me alone). Burton shows MacGregor marching through scenes with plucky, exaggerated insouciance, and all the colors are from a bag of Skittles. Then we switch to Will and his pregnant wife talking in bed, and it’s plain as a documentary, their dialogue so natural it sounds improvised. The alternation of the styles continues subtly, leading the viewer along without calling attention to itself. At the end it’s exhilarating when a character crosses over; as Will tells a story he breaks visibly out of one format into the other, and all the light and color in the room shift before our eyes.
There is some excellent work in "Big Fish," and for a good while you hope that a thoughtful message will match it. Put this down as the one that got away.