Nothing Frying in 'Big Fish'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2003

"Big Fish" stinks from the head.

A bit of leaden whimsy from Tim Burton, this is almost certainly the year's most pitiful specimen of major studio release from major director. You can only smack your hand against your head and wonder, What were they thinking?

Basically an exercise in Old South mythologizing, it takes as its major text the awkwardness between fathers and sons, and as its subtext the southern love of embellished narrative. These two themes it lamely tries to spin for two long and charmless hours, somewhat like "Forrest Gump" on a high colonic.

It boasts three big stars -- Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor and Jessica Lange -- who have all been better. The best thing in the picture is a young up-and-comer, even if the picture he's in seems different than the one they're in. That's Billy Crudup as Will Bloom, a young newspaper reporter in Paris who returns home when he learns his father is dying of cancer. The two haven't really spoken in two years.

That's because Big Ed Bloom (Finney) is a tale-teller. It's the view of the movie that Ol' Ed is a big, lovable bear of a man, and that in the whimsical tales he tells can be seen all manner of delight and wisdom. It's the view of this reviewer that Big Ed is a pathological liar ensnared in an ugly mesh of bitter hostility who cannot stand to have attention paid to anyone other than himself, and so he happily destroys every social situation he's in -- the big one was his son's wedding -- by telling his charmin' tales and relentlessly hogging the spotlight. He doesn't need a hug, he needs a poke in the snout.

In any event, Will heads back to Alabama, where his father lies abed, in hopes of coming to some sort of truth about the man. Thus the narrative structure of the movie, which is Big Ed spinning yarns, dodging the truth, flirting furiously with every damn woman he meets, while his understanding wife (Lange), his adoring daughter-in-law (Marion Cotillard) and his simmering son stand by.

This might work if the stories themselves had any charm whatsoever, but of course they don't. They seem to take place in a world of magical realism occupied by a giant (George McArthur) and a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) and mysterious Brigadoon-like towns in the swamps. The work of Diane Arbus may have been part of the visual inspiration for Burton's design of this place -- the giant recalls one of her famous photos, and another image shows two twins in plaid similar to a famous Arbus composition -- but it all adds up, pretty much, to nothing.

At least the makers of "Forrest Gump" had the smarts to put Forrest in historically significant moments in baby boomer history as they charted his course through the years; Burton puts young Ed nowhere except in a dimly imagined world that's about on a level with Burton's "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." The young Ed is played by McGregor in that same breezy, callow style that he brought to the breezy, callow "Down With Love." Nobody in the movie, however, with the exception of Crudup, is real. The movie itself isn't real.

But its real flaw -- this turns it into an ordeal -- is the almost total lack of suspense. Nothing is ever at stake; there's no reason to go on watching; no audience expectation is met. It's more like random scenes from life than it is a coherently imagined story.

Big Fish (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for a fight scene and sexual innuendo.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company