Director Tim Burton finally hooks the one that got away: a script that challenges and deepens his visionary talent. Big Fish, skillfully adapted by John August (Go) from the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace, brims with storytelling sorcery, and Burton makes it glitter. This marvel of a movie lives up to its buzz as an Oscar contender by finding a provocative subtext for Burton's flair for fables. Who better than the whiz behind Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, not to mention Batman and Beetlejuice, to spin the tale of a man who makes up his life as he goes along, a man who finds a deeper truth in fantasy.p>hat man is Edward Bloom, a salesman played with comic bravado by Albert Finney in a touching, towering performance made all the more extraordinary because almost all of his scenes are in bed. Edward is dying. His wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange), has called their son, Will (a sharply implosive Billy Crudup), home to Ashton, Alabama, to reconcile with the father he hasn't spoken to for years. Will, a journalist who has made his career by serving facts straight, hates his father for constructing myths to hide behind.p>t's the myths, of course, that most reveal the real Edward. And Burton wisely builds his movie around them. Ewan McGregor, freed from his Star Wars straitjacket, steps in to play the young Edward, and the tall tales begin. McGregor, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Finney in his Tom Jones days, is wonderfully engaging. Finding Ashton too small a pond for the big fish he longs to be, Edward sets out for a wider world, where he meets a witch, a giant, a naked babe who saves him from drowning and the freaks in a circus run by a ringmaster (Danny DeVito) who's part werewolf. A stop in Spectre, a shadow version of Ashton populated by happy, barefoot failures such as poet Norther Winslow (the great Steve Buscemi), almost traps Edward in complacency. But soon he's off, courting Sandra (lovely Alison Lohman) in college; parachuting into Korea, where he discovers a conjoined-sister singing act; saving a bankrupt town; and meeting a stranger (a striking Helena Bonham Carter) who may not be a stranger at all. All the actors are exceptional, searching their characters for the hurt that needs healing. Lange pierces the heart as Sandra climbs in the tub with Edward to offer comfort and forgiveness.p>n less capable hands, Big Fish could play like a tribute to a liar's pathology. Or, worse, Edward could be a holy fool, like Forrest Gump. He isn't. In trying to reshape the world around his fantasy, Edward wants to right the world's wrongs, and his own. That he can't is his tragedy. The tension inherent in this fable of a father with his head in the clouds and a son with his feet on the ground brings out a bracing maturity in Burton and gives the film its haunting gravity. As the son learns to talk to his father on the father's terms and still see him clearly, Big Fish takes on the transformative power of art.
From The Archives Issue 335: January 22, 1981