Big Fish ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Big Fish is a meditation on the reconciliation between who we are and who we wish to be. The story is also, of course, framed as the reconciliation between an estranged father and son. There are times when it's easy to be charmed by older Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), and times when we share Will's (Billy Crudup) frustration with the unbelievable yarns. I love a good story as much as the next guy, but there does come a point where it's reasonable and fair to ask, "Isn't the truth of what happened good enough?"

The cast sells the story, particularly the earnest performance by Ewan McGregor as the young Edward. McGregor so thoroughly throws himself into the role of the rube having extraordinary adventures that it's difficult to conjure the cynicism to scoff at the film. There aren't many who could have nailed the right tone the way that he did, without being so hokey as to burst the bubble being created. It is ridiculous, but McGregor makes it all feel acceptably ridiculous somehow.

What makes Big Fish so striking, other than McGregor, are three key scenes: Older Sandy climbing into the bathtub with older Edward, older Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter) telling Will that he and his mother were Edward's "real" life, and the finale. It could easily have been too cute to work, but Burton strikes just the right balance that it does.

I've been focused on class in Tim Burton's filmography in my recent viewings of his movies, and it's pretty easy to see here. Ringmaster Amos Calloway (Danny DeVito) outright chastises Edward that Sandy is out of his league, that Edward has nothing to offer because he has nothing to his name. What's surprising, though, is that Edward works for three years without pay just to learn what amounts to 36-ish facts about Sandy. There's no explanation for how, after his backpack was stolen, Edward ever even acquired a second change of clothes, but it doesn't much matter. Edward is a guy who finds a way to make things happen, and it's easy to buy into that.

This also is why we can accept that Edward was undaunted by being just as penniless when he left the circus as when he joined it. Class is not so much a barrier in Edward's world as it is a set of rules to navigate. If read as a reinforcement of the "bootstraps" doctrine, Big Fish is sickeningly self-righteous, but I think we see that Edward was more in the right place at the right time than he was architect of his life.

Like every other Burton film, one area of shortcoming is the lack of diversity of characters/actors. There's Robert Guillame as Dr. Bennett, Deep Roy as Mr. Soggybottom, and Ada Tai and Arlene Tai as the twins. Women in the film also have very little to do except to be won over by Edward. For all of Amos Calloway's talk, Sandy didn't seem to have the slightest hesitation about Edward outside of her preexisting engagement. She's an achievement to be unlocked more than she is an actual character.

Side note: where are Sandy's parents in all this? Amos implies that she's part of their upper-class world, but rather than being another set of people for Edward to have to win over, they're entirely absent from the story.

Big Fish Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#185/1591)

Big Fish > Secret Honor --> #185
Philip Baker Hall was compelling as Nixon, but the film's speculations about the former President aren't as engaging as is the fantasy of Big Fish.

Big Fish > Far and Away --> #185
I dig both, but I was more invested in Big Fish.

Big Fish > Son of Frankenstein --> #185
I'm conflicted here, as I adore the Universal Monsters and always liked Son of Frankenstein; but Big Fish evokes more emotional investment.

Big Fish < Toy Story 2 --> #185
You might be emotional, Big Fish, but you'll never be "Jessie's Song" in Toy Story 2 emotional.

Big Fish < Raiders of the Lost Ark --> #185
Not too long ago, I'd have picked Big Fish without hesitation, but I've really come around on Raiders of the Lost Ark after having finally seen it on the big screen. Indy squeaks by with the win.

Big Fish > Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull --> #174
Both are contrived as could be, and ridiculous, but only one purposely incorporates those elements into its narrative direction. Winner: Big Fish.

Big Fish < Batman Begins --> #174
It turns out that I care more about Batman than I do about an emotional reconciliation between an estranged father and son. Should surprise everyone who knows me.

Big Fish < Roman Holiday --> #174
Big Fish is fantastic, in both that it's a fantasy and that it's well done and enjoyable, but I was instantly smitten with Roman Holiday when I saw it at the Louisville Palace in 2012.

Big Fish < Rachel Getting Married --> #174
Ewan McGregor sells Big Fish, but Anne Hathaway's performance in Rachel Getting Married was brilliant.

Big Fish < Open Water --> #174
Ha! Love this pairing, Flickchart. I found Big Fish affecting, but Open Water has stayed with me more vividly over the last decade.

Big Fish < Ocean's Eleven --> #174
I enjoyed Big Fish, but Clooney and company are too much fun to watch.

Big Fish was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #174/1591