If Fellini had directed “Forrest Gump,” the result would be “Big Fish,” a larger-than-life tale about a man who tells larger-than-life tales. “Big Fish” was directed by Tim Burton, himself a master of spinning spectacular stories. And after his dreary 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” this is a welcome return to the colorful territory he explored early with films such as “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
But like Edward Bloom, the film’s protagonist, Burton tends to get carried away with himself. Working from a script by John August (“Go”), based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, the director at times seems too caught up with the quirkiness of his characters and their adventures, perhaps at the expense of emotional resonance.
“Big Fish” is never boring, though, and it’s consistently a visual wonder. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (“A River Runs Through It”) and production designer Dennis Gassner, a frequent Coen brothers collaborator, help create a breathtakingly lush landscape that’s completely engrossing.
The center of this universe is Edward, played in flashbacks as a young man by Ewan McGregor and in the present as an adult by Albert Finney. McGregor (who’s Scottish) and Finney (who’s English) both play the character (who’s from Alabama) with an eagerness that borders on ingratiating, as well as a believable Southern accent.
Truth among the tall tales
Edward is dying of cancer, and his journalist son, Will (Billy Crudup), is insistent on learning the truth about his father after hearing nothing but outlandish stories his whole life.
There’s the one about how he won the big basketball game in high school with a clutch shot at the buzzer; the one about the giant (Matthew McGrory) he befriended in his small town; the one about proposing to his wife (Jessica Lange) in a field full of daffodils; the one about escaping Vietnam with the help of conjoined-twin lounge singers (Ada and Arlene Tai, who truly appear to share three legs thanks to some marvelous special effects).
Much time is devoted to the years Edward spent with the circus, led by a ringmaster (Danny DeVito) who turns into a wolf at night. He also recalls the oddly idyllic small town of Spectre where he ended up by accident — a place where no one wears shoes and everything appears in Technicolor.
But the biggest story of all — the one about a freakishly large fish he caught by using his wedding band as bait — is his favorite, and it’s the one Will complains to his dad that he hates hearing the most. Crudup is relegated to playing the uptight straight man in these scenes, while Finney and McGregor seem to be having the time of their lives.
McGregor is perfectly suited for the role after proving with “Trainspotting” and “Moulin Rouge!” that’s he’s game for this kind of wild material. And it’s completely possible to imagine him in his later years turning into Finney, who manages to be charismatic even on his deathbed.
In another genius bit of casting, Alison Lohman plays Edward’s wife, Sandra, in flashbacks. Not only has Lohman proven herself as an actress with talents beyond her years, she also looks astonishingly like a young version of Lange.
Ultimately, though, all the actors become secondary to the elaborate mythology in which they’re immersed, which can detract from moments that are supposed to buzz with emotion. Burton seems more interested in piling on the weirdness — but, hey at least the weirdness is imaginative. And that’s no fish tale.
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