Big Fish is Tim Burton’s trippiest film to date, which is saying something. Whimsical, poetic imagery suffuses this gentle, fable-like tale, which has been compared to Forrest Gump but is more like a Southern-gothic Gulliver’s Travels by way of Secondhand Lions. Albert Finney is remarkable as Ed Bloom, a garrulous storyteller whose almost mythical accounts of his own life are meant to be endearing celebrations of the power of stories and imagination.
The title, Big Fish, has two different connotations. On the one hand, it connotes the expression "big fish in a small pond," suggesting Bloom’s larger-than-life stature in his own tales. But it also evokes the phrase "big fish story," a colorful, perhaps self-aggrandizing tale not necessarily to be taken at face value.
Like Haley Joel Osment in Secondhand Lions wanting to know the truth about the tales of his uncles’ alleged exploits, Ed’s son Will (Billy Crudup) wants to know whether his dying father really was a Big Fish in a small pond, or whether his father’s tales were just Big Fish stories. Big Fish also echoes Secondhand Lions by ending with a funeral scene that provides some answers as Will finally meets certain individuals from his father’s past.
But Secondhand Lions wasn’t really totally committed to the issue of whether the uncles’ stories were true or not. "If you want to believe in something, then believe in it!" Robert Duvall told Osment. "Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it!" Big Fish seems to go even further, effectively saying, "Stories are interesting and reality is banal, so hang reality and enjoy the stories."
Ultimately, I don’t buy this Big Fish story. Though we’re meant to be charmed by the whimsy and spirit of Bloom’s imagination, looking past the glossy whimsy and wacky Burtonesque imagery, I can’t help regarding Bloom as a man who lives so much in his own inner world that he’s unwilling or unable to engage people who are unwilling or unable to join him there. This includes his son, whom the movie seems to think needs to learn to accept his dad as he is. From where I sit, it looked like it was the dad who needed to learn to be there for his son.
The film opens with Ed telling his signature story, an allegorical tale about a huge catfish, at his son’s wedding. Later, Will explodes at his father: This was supposed to be Will’s day, not Ed’s; on this one day, did Ed really have to take center stage yet again with the same self-aggrandizing stories he’d been telling all Will’s life? I have to say, I thought Will had a point.
The same issues seem to extend to Ed’s relationship with his wife Sandra (Jessica Lange), though unlike her son she doesn’t seem to have any complaints. There’s no denying that Ed is a doting husband, and even a faithful one, but the film doesn’t seem to notice that he’s also a rather absent one. For example, one of the things about Ed’s past that we learn for sure has to do with his obsession with a strange town called Specter, where he winds up spending huge amounts of time (and money) that I couldn’t help thinking could have been better spent with his wife and son.
Sandra may be content to be a kind of trophy in the grand narrative of her husband’s life, but does that make it right for him to treat her that way? In any case, Will isn’t content to be another prop in the old man’s stories, yet Ed doesn’t seem to have any other mode of relating to people.
Toward the end there’s a scene in which Will, now reconciled to his father’s mythic mode of autobiography, repeats the same outlandish stories to his own young son, who — like Will himself at that young age — hasn’t yet begun to question and therefore to resent the stories. The apparent implication is that Will now believes that there was nothing wrong with his father’s stories, even though they led to an estrangement that wasn’t resolved until his father lay on his deathbed.
Does Will also accept that this pattern of estrangement and last-hour rapprochement is simply the way of things? What happens if and when Will’s own son rebels, rejects the stories, and winds up estranged from Will? Is that just the way of things, and the lad will come around before the end?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.