Tim Burton's Big Fish has the feel of an epic adventure in a way, yet also comes off like a whimsical fantasy and a serious human drama. Whatever faults one may find with the film, lack of ambition isn't among them. Yet that ambition is also the movie's main flaw. I enjoyed the movie while it was on, yet thinking about it now, a day after seeing it, I find myself feeling that there wasn't much to it, that it overreached with its ambition and the result is a movie that is very easy to admire, yet very hard to love.
Recommend this product?
I think the main problem with the film is that the narrative flow of the story is off. The film switches between three different narrators and thus it doesn't flow quite well at all. In fact, the film gets rather incoherent at times. My complaint here is similar to the one I had with Cold Mountain: that the idea as a whole would have worked better in book form.
That structural problem might not have been too big a deal in the case of a Tarantino movie. But here it derails the film. The main focus of the story is supposed to be on a dying father telling stories (rather far-fetched ones at that) to his disbelieving journalist son. The father dying bit is a heavy theme for a movie, yet we don't find ourselves caring too much about him or his relationship with his son. In fact, it's safe to say that by the end of the film, we didn't really know any of the characters that well. Overall, the final result is a triumph of style over substance, of whimsical fantasy scenes over a character driven story, to paraphrase Harlan Ellison.
Albert Finney plays the old and dying Edward Bloom, a man who has lived a literally full life. A life full of (literally) tall tales. Tall tales that the audience is never sure whether to believe or not. Tales that his son Will (Billy Crudup) does not believe at all.
When Will hears that his father is dying, he hurries home. There he asks that Edward please tell him the truth. But Edward persists in his tale telling ways, which sets up the stage for a series of vignettes featuring a young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) at different points in his life. These tales are supposed to be the stepping-stone for Will to finally accept the eccentric side of dear old dad. Crudup's performance is probably the best thing about the film and Finney is quite decent. But Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman's performances are rather fluffy in a way. Danny Devito's part has some substance to it, although it's the type of role he's been dong for years and he doesn't bring anything new to it.
Given Burton's flair for the absurd and whimsical, you may find it surprising that Big Fish is missing much of the dark, surreal humor that characterized his best movies (Beetlejuice, the original Batman, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow). In fact, a good part of the movie comes off as rather serious minded and the laughs that do occur are often different from what you would expect in a Burton film. Some of them are more standard issue (a bank robbery gig for instance). In a sense, Burton seems to be railing against the low critical reception his overblown remake of Planet Of The Apes received by saying "I'm a serious filmmaker". Unfortunately, he made a mistake. He confused being a serious filmmaker with making a serious movie that has no substance.
All complaints aside, Big Fish is easily very entertaining and you never find yourself bored when watching it. Plus, the closing credits have the excellent new Pearl Jam song "Man Of The Hour". That alone is enough to earn the film a (marginal) recommendation.
Not bad overall, even though it's no Ed Wood.