In Shallow Water 

Big Fish is bursting with Tim Burton’s characteristic whimsy, but in the end, it doesn’t offer much else

Big Fish is bursting with Tim Burton’s characteristic whimsy, but in the end, it doesn’t offer much else

Big Fish

Dir.: Tim Burton

PG-13, 110 min.

Now showing at area theaters

Tim Burton’s work has always struck me as over-cute and pointlessly petulant, until I watched the A&E Biography of Burton two years ago and began to see his signature movies (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, The Nightmare Before Christmas) as the product of a specific kind of suburban rebel. Burton’s not a true subversive; he’s the sort of middle-class outsider who grew up alongside other middle-class outsiders (thereby negating their collective outsiderdom). He had a good upbringing, and mentors and employers who respected his talents and gave him ample chances to use his imagination. Burton’s only real complaint is that he’s never had much to complain about.

The director’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish (scripted by John August) has been hyped as his most personal film, and indeed there’s more than a little of Burton in the character of Will Bloom, a young man irritated that his father Ed is too likable and too loving. Albert Finney plays the elder Ed Bloom, on his deathbed but still charming visitors with shaggy dog stories and amusing anecdotes, delivered in an avuncular Southern drawl. Billy Crudup plays Will, back at home with his pregnant wife and determined to reconcile with his dad before it’s too late.

Crudup gives a typically subtle performance, at once deferential and indignant, and when he delivers his big speeches, he does so in a slightly rushed mumble that gets across how long his character has stewed over what he wants to say. The actor is about the only naturalistic element in Big Fish, which otherwise engages in episodic magical realism, relating the details of Ed Bloom’s life as one extended tall tale. Ewan McGregor plays the younger Ed, delivering a broad, painted-smile performance that some will find charming and some annoyingly artificial. (Myself, I bought it.)

Ed’s life story carries him from small-town Alabama to the Korean War and back again, with stops at a backwater Shangri-La and a traveling circus. The stories are absurd but mostly funny, and almost all of them revolve around Ed Bloom’s infatuation with a woman named Sandra (played as a youth by Alison Lohman and later by Jessica Lange). Big Fish is sort of a romance, though as with a lot of Burton’s films, the woman’s place in the story is largely ornamental, no better developed than the giants, werewolves and conjoined twins that Ed Bloom encounters. It’s indicative of Burton’s paternalism that when Will Bloom wants to know the truth about his father, he never thinks to ask his mother.

It’s also indicative of Burton’s artistic sensibility that he’s drawn to a story that never really deepens. The generally light, entertaining first 90 minutes of Big Fish rely on the preposterousness of Bloom’s storytelling and the promise that, at some point, we’ll find out the truth behind the tales—maybe seeing how Bloom uses humor and exaggeration to mask some real disappointment in his life. But over the final hour, the filmmakers muff the chance to generate any flavor stronger than sweet, and though the climax is moving, it’s a cheap, “feel-good” kind of moving.

Maybe that’s just who Burton is. Maybe the snappy competence of work-for-hire like Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes is where he should apply his talents, since his more personal “beautiful outcast” movies always come out too slick and vaguely incomplete. On the other hand, maybe it’s possible to appreciate Burton’s half-baked cream-puffs as a valid expression of self. In that context, Big Fish becomes the amiable, intermittently fascinating work of a man who indulges dark whimsy without ever asking why.

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