Big Fish

Given a rich, ripe topic with an autobiographical subtext, Tim Burton still can't sort out his feelings toward Dad. Or this movie.

YOU'D THINK THIS would be the ideal movie for Tim Burton to make. In Big Fish (which opens Christmas Day at Guild 45th and other theaters), Albert Finney rudely chews up the scenery with his mouth open, hamming it up to high heaven as the movie's tall-tale-spinmeister hero. His Edward Bloom has dominated every big day in the life of his grumpy son, William (Billy Crudup, who seems grumpy for real at having to waste his vast talent on his dull, pointless, no-fun-zone of a character). The movie mostly consists of Ed's deathbed flashbacks to his considerably embellished life story, told while William annoyingly rolls his eyes in annoyance. A traveling salesman with an oversize Alabama accent that somehow makes everything more outrageously fable-like, Ed claims to have once battled a giant catfish for his wife's wedding ring. We also see him heroically rescue pooches from fires, triumph in school sports, and face down his boyhood town's resident witch (Helena Bonham Carter), whose tumbledown mansion resembles the many haunted houses in other Burton flicks, and whose glass eye contains a reflection of the death scene of anyone who dares gaze at it. Go on, Ed, take a look. In all these scenes with young Ed, Ewan McGregor is all aw-shucks playing the dewy youth who grows up to be Finney. He rather resembles Finney in Tom Jonesthough his sticky sweetness is remote from Jones' rascally character. It also reminded me of his horrid Rock Hudson -like role in Down With Love. Deeming his birthplace too small for a big-fish kind of fellow with a big mouth, young Ed flees for a mysterious village in a dark wood, Specter, which resembles a cross between Thornton Wilder's eerie Grover's Corner and Edward Scissorhands' hometown. He befriends a cave-dwelling giant (real-life giant Matthew McGrory), joins a circus run by a werewolf who turns into Danny DeVito by day, converts a bank robber with poetic inclinations (Steve Buscemi) into an honest captain of finance, escapes the Korean War with a pair of singing Siamese twins and makes them big stars, then courts a gorgeous sorority girl (up and coming actress Alison Lohman). In Fish's present-day framing story, Jessica Lange does a fine job of playing the woman Lohman will become. Or rather, Lange plays a standard Lange character, while the talented Lohman, who suckered us all in Matchstick Men, skillfully impersonates a younger, radiant Lange. Is Ed making it all up as he goes along? Or will it turn out there's some sort of touching reality behind his jive? Will William forgive the incorrigible old bastard at last? Danny Elfman's remarkably sappy, un-Elfmanic score tunes up the schmaltz, grabs your lapels, and blubberingly begs you to hope so. WHAT SHOULD'VE MADE Fish ideal for Burton is the endless opportunity here for dreamlike, eye-candy fantasy with a scary undercurrent; that, plus the figure of Crudup's misunderstood son. More intensely than any Hollywood personage I can think of, Burton has spoken of his parents with a cold loathing. Otherworldly alienation from family is the theme of all his art. That he should finally decide to make a movie about father-son reconciliation is very interesting indeed. But there is zero conviction in his telling of this story: He doesn't give a shit about William or his relationship with his yappy dad any more than you do. Ed's son is as superfluous as the interviewer in Interview With the Vampire, the most unnecessary narrator in literary history. All Burton cares about is the frivolous fables (or fabulous frivols) spun by Ed. And he isn't too particular about them, either; these episodes could be watched in any order, like the scenes of a Charlie's Angels film or a Burroughs novel. The movie's adapted from the book Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by John August, the screenwriter of the thrillingly kinetic movie Go, but it quite lacks mythic proportions and has no go. (Another bad sign: August also contributed to both Angels films.) The resolution, in which we finally understand the basis for Ed's stories, feels unresolved and affords no revelations. Fish is a shaggy-dog story that snaps its leash and barks in any and all directions at random. It's sad, because so many of the scenes are shot through with real magic. Finney's ripe soliloquies would truly kill if only they ever had a comprehensible point. Specter is a splendid invention: a town with grass for streets, whose dear hearts and gentle people have a clingy friendliness, with a Twilight Zone shimmer of menace. The Siamese twins have a David Lynch aura, and we keep feeling that Buscemi's charismatic poet/robber is finally going to pull off some feat that will make our eyes bug out more than his. Only he doesn't. Fish repeatedly rises near the surface of our hopes, only to subside, like the catfish, into the murk of Burton's dissipating daydreams.

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