Not Much Lure in This 'Big Fish'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

THERE MAY be good things to say about Tim Burton's "Big Fish," but not too many will come from this corner. What is meant to be a wondrous tale, a big-fish story that evokes the spirit of "Forrest Gump" and displays Burton's surrealistic imagery and set design, is a disappointingly dull thud of a fantasy.

The best thing in the movie, which screenwriter John August adapted from Daniel Wallace's novel "Big Fish: A Story of Mythic Proportions," is Albert Finney. As central character Edward Bloom, he has an engaging swagger. And for an Englishman, he packs one heck of a Southern accent. Unfortunately, his presence isn't enough to carry such a narratively unwieldy film.

Edward is a weaver of fanciful tales that captivate people, but he never stops telling them and seems to be unable or unwilling to face reality. His son, Will (Billy Crudup), has such resentment for his father's outlandish stories, he has become, gasp, a journalist, a purveyor of boring facts and truth. And even worse, he has left his small town in Alabama for . . . France.

But Will's mother, Sandra (Jessica Lange), summons the prodigal son home. It seems his father is dying and the time has come for some kind of reconciliation. Will wants to understand his father's real life story, get to the bottom of things. But Edward -- and clearly this movie -- insists that the truth is what you want to believe about yourself.

As one of the narrators, Will reprises the zany episodes in Edward's life that the old man has always claimed to be true. And with Ewan McGregor playing the young Edward, we experience those adventures as real events. They include a visit to the fantastical "Brigadoon"-like small town called Specter, where people walk barefoot through grass; Edward's lifelong romantic pursuit of Sandra (played as a younger woman by Alison Lohman); encounters with an array of assorted characters, including a giant (Matthew McGrory), a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) whose glass eye sees into the dark future, and a pair of conjoined twins; and Edward's attempt to catch a giant fish -- a regular presence in the movie.

Will doesn't believe a word of any of this, of course. And frankly, it's easy to understand why. There's something terribly forced about everything, as if creating dreamlike scenery, weird-and-not-that-wonderful characters and a mediocre, draggy (two hours) story line is all it takes to cast a spell. By the time we arrive at the movie's rather heavy-handed finale, it's only the larger-than-life force of Finney's acting that saves the scene. In the ultimate scheme of things, that adds up to a minnow's worth of magic.

BIG FISH (PG-13, 119 minutes) -- Contains some passing nudity and a little violence. Area theaters.

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