Tim Burton has always had a lot of Fellini in him, and the debt has never been clearer than in “Big Fish,” a series of whimsical tall tales inflated to mind-boggling visual excess and invested with lots of woozy pseudo-philosophizing about the nature of dreams and reality and the power of fantasizing. Though the picture, adapted from the novel by Daniel Wallace, seems distinctively American, centering on a garrulous Southern storyteller and the estranged son who tries to comprehend the deeper meaning of the yarns his dad spins, the mood and style are more European, and in particular Felliniesque–no more so than in the big finale which sums up the father’s half-genuine, half-imagined life in a huge reunion panoply that comes across as a homage to “8½“–a surrealistic display that was also about the nature of creativity, of course. Inviting the comparison, unfortunately, is not the same thing as achieving a result of similar quality. “8½” is a masterpiece of invention and flair; in contrast “Big Fish” seems childlike and obvious. Like all of Burton’s films it’s eye-catching and at times charmingly off-kilter. But unlike Fellini’s picture, which despite its equal embrace of self-indulgence culminated in a rather simple–but profound–observation on human life, Burton’s episodic, picaresque fable winds up a disjointed assemblage of extravagant effects, some of which are momentarily delightful but which together don’t add up to very much. In the final analysis, “Big Fish” is pretty much small potatoes.
The question posed by the picture is whether truth lies in fact or fiction or some higher mixture of the two. The person investigating the question, and by extension the audience surrogate, is Will Bloom (Billy Crudup), a UPI staffer living in Paris with his photographer wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard). He’s called back home to Alabama by his mom Sandra (Jessica Lange) to spend time with his father Ed (Albert Finney), who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ed and Will haven’t spoken in years; the younger man was always embarrassed by his father’s habit of relating elaborate stories about his past, and finally fled the country, in the process taking up journalism, a “fact-based” form of narrative that’s the obvious antithesis of his dad’s favored approach. On Will’s return the two men briefly squabble, but soon the son is delving into Ed’s real history, and its relationship with the tales the old man is always telling about himself. The stories–which involve giants, witches, werewolves, magical romances, mystical timeless towns, military adventures, conjoined Siamese singers, a poet turned bank robber turned Wall Street billionaire, and the titular fish that symbolizes the whole world of fantasy, and which are re-enacted in magic realist style by younger versions of Ed (Ewan McGregor) and Sandra (Alison Lohman)–prove to contain all sorts of hidden messages and revelations, the collection of which finally enables Will to come to terms with his family past and to understand, and appreciate, his father.
The picture thus switches continuously from the contemporary, with Finney easily dominating things as the gruffly charming Ed, to the gleefully embellished past, with McGregor, wide-eyed and inveterately hopeful, acting out (and narrating) the younger man’s supposed adventures. Finney’s companions in the former segments don’t fare as well as he does. Lange is reduced to doing little more than hovering in the background, oozing sympathy and support, and Cotillard does pretty much the same. Crudup, meanwhile, is stuck with the unenviable task of looking moody and glum as he ponders his family ties and his father’s flights of fancy; he’s not much more personable than the shadow-shrouded investigator of “Citizen Kane,” even if his face is much more visible. In the “recollection” scenes, McGregor looks sufficiently like a young version of Finney, but his breezy demeanor and naivete never generate much empathy; Lohman, by contrast, is sweet but little more. Among the people young Ed meets along his fantastical way, Steve Buscemi stands out as the poet-robber, and Danny DeVito certainly growls impressively as a circus impresario who takes advantage of the boy’s romantic interest in Sandra. Everyone else is perfectly fine without being outstanding: Matthew McGrory has the height but not the thespian chops to make a plausible giant, and Helena Bonham Carter gets by, but doesn’t manage to generate the requite touch of real magic, as an ethereal music teacher. (She also makes an appearance as a wizened old witch, but in her makeup she actually looks more like a camouflaged version of one of Burton’s former leads, Johnny Depp.) Ada and Arlene Tai make a real impression as a the conjoined Asian singing act–the special effects in this case are far superior to those on display in “Stuck on You.”
And that sums up the movie’s problem. Even Finney pales beside the real stars of “Big Fish”–the behind-the-scenes crew, including production designer Dennis Gassner, art director Richard Johnson, set decorator Nancy Haigh, costumer Colleen Atwood and ace cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who have fashioned beautifully colorful and evocative backgrounds for the recollection sequences and a suitably plush but realistic environment for the contemporary ones. Danny Elfman provides a characteristic score, mingling the lighthearted and the bittersweet. (In the music department, watch for a shot of Billy Redden, the banjo-playing kid from “Deliverance,” who shows up briefly to plunk the strings again.)
In fact, the craft contributions are so exquisite that they make one regret that the film as a whole doesn’t measure up to them. “Big Fish” is constantly striving to reach a depth that it never manages to achieve; Burton’s easygoing, almost lackadaisical approach allows for incidental pleasures (a hilariously eccentric moment involving a Chinese ventriloquist and his dummy stands out, especially because its content is kept totally obscure) but fails to attain the coherent vision that Fellini, for one, created. For all its desire to suggest something significant about the exalted character of the imaginative artist, “Big Fish” ultimately swims in pretty shallow waters.