Big Fish is the sort of autumnal, elegiac tearjerker you expect from a director in his sixties, not from Tim Burton, who’s forty-five. It may be a little too early in his career for glowing odes to the power of storytelling — its transportive magic, its warming and benign delusions. That said, I enjoyed Big Fish more than any film Burton has been involved with since maybe Nightmare Before Christmas. Working from Daniel Wallace’s slim, anecdotal novel (adapted by John August), Burton allows himself clearer, purer access to emotion than ever before. He actually pays attention to “normal” characters this time, integrating them seamlessly with the misfits that have always been his stock in trade.
This is also the rare tearjerker that may inspire debate afterward. The main character, Edward Bloom, played in old age by Albert Finney and by Ewan McGregor as a young man, regales anyone who’ll listen with outlandish tales of his life. There are skeptics in the film, including Edward’s grown son Will (Billy Crudup), who wishes his father had told him something real about himself just once. What we see in flashbacks, as Burton faithfully dramatizes Edward’s stories, is most likely at odds with what actually happened — or is it? Is this the story of a sad, self-deluded man who told whoppers to make his life more interesting, or the story of a man with a wild imagination who simply created a world he wanted to live in? Burton obviously leans towards the latter.
We follow young Edward in his travels — to a carnival, accompanied by a giant (Matthew McGrory); to a suspiciously idyllic town called Spectre, which may or may not be Heaven itself; to the Korean War, where he meets a Siamese-twin singing act. These colorful yarns — acted by McGregor with his trademark shining grin and disregard of irony — are contrasted with latter-day scenes of the dying Edward in his sickbed, attended by his adoring wife Sandra (Jessica Lange in a somewhat thankless role — Burton seldom pays much attention to women in his work) and badgered by Will into telling the truth. But it becomes apparent that Edward’s stories are his truth.
A plotless compendium of tall tales, with many differently-bodied people to detain the camera eye, Big Fish comes close to being Tim Burton In A Nutshell. Whatever manic gothic energy distinguished his early films (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, parts of Batman) is gone, replaced by smooth, unobtrusive filmmaking, as if Burton had finally developed the patience to let a movie unfold (to be fair, 1994’s Ed Wood pointed towards a new, mature style for him). Edward’s stories ramble, and so the movie does, too. Helena Bonham Carter, who I’m beginning to think does her warmest work for Burton (she was the humanistic heart of his Planet of the Apes remix), turns up in two roles, as a one-eyed witch (whose glass eye tells you how you’re going to die) and as a native of Spectre who benefits from Edward’s generosity. It’s typical of the movie that it never quite tells us whether the two characters are really the same person.
In his travels, Edward bumps into the likes of Danny DeVito (as a carny barker) and Steve Buscemi (as a poet whose work is eternally “in progress”). Really, pretty much everyone Edward meets is a kind of storyteller, or a character out of a fairytale. Are they real? The final scene tells us but doesn’t tell us. After a career of literal-minded ghoulies and phantasms, Tim Burton has discovered ambiguity. The filmmaking shows the assured control of a master summing up his filmography at the twilight of his career, which may be why I balk at Burton doing something like this at age forty-five. I’d hate to think there isn’t more where this comes from.