Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton

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Whether simply because of the framing device or because he’s a narcissist, Big Fish is a series of tales about a blowhard for whom everything goes his way, and yet it just yanks on the heartstrings every time I watch it.

As an old man Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) struggles to maintain a connection with his son, Will (Billy Crudup), thanks to Edward’s grandiose, repetitive storytelling.  He’s like any father, starting with “did I ever tell you…” before his son cuts him off to assure him, that yes, he has told that one before.

When Will learns that his father is dying, he flies back home to Alabama with his wife (the underused Marion Cotillard) and hopes to finally get the real story about his father’s life.  His father’s fairytale accounts of his own life may have worked when Will was a child, but now he’s far past frustrated with the stories of magical fish, witches, giants, hidden villages, circuses and Korean twin singers.

The narrative of Big Fish tells us all these stories that Will has heard all his life, using his wife as the audience surrogate, the person who gets to hear these, like us, for the first time.  The film will cut between Edward’s imaginative stories (using Ewan McGregor as the young Edward) and the ways the people listening take them in.  In this way it’s much like Forrest Gump, though of course we have a character actively pushing back against Edward’s stories.

Young Edward was born in a small Alabama town, and he quickly realized he had bigger and better things in store for him.  When a giant shows up terrorizing the town, it’s Edward who volunteers to risk life and limb to convince the big man to leave town.  He does this because, having foreseen his own death in the glass eye of a local witch as a young boy, he knows this isn’t his time to die.  This continually gives him bravery throughout the film.

Edward helps convince the giant, Karl (Matthew McGrory) to leave by suggesting that he himself wants to leave too.  They receive a farewell parade and hit the open road, with no destination in mind.

When Edward finds an ominous path through the woods, he figures now’s a better time than ever to take it, and it leads him to a hidden village called Spectre.  There the townsfolk explain that they’ve been expecting him, and Edward is alternately enchanted and disturbed by this magical, cult-like community.  He soon decides to leave, telling them that though this is as good a place as any to settle, he’s not quite ready to settle anywhere.

I suppose there’s no point explaining all of the plot details, but just know that Edward’s travels will soon orbit his instant affection for Sandra (Alison Lohman/Jessica Lange), and then after they are married the focus is a traveling salesman gig that takes him all over the southeastern United States.

He will pine for the previously spoken for Sandra at Auburn University, spend three years before that working unpaid at a circus, he will be drafted into the army where he volunteers for the most dangerous assignments so that he might be sent home more quickly, he will be presumed dead, he will accidentally rob a bank, restore Spectre when it falls into ruin, etc.

These tales are only connected by the ‘present’ moments of the story, in which Will struggles to grapple with his father’s refusal to tell him the truth.  He grows more and more exasperated that, even while knocking on death’s door, his father is more devoted to fantasy than reality, but slowly Will finds evidence that gives weight to these fantasies, blurring the line between his father’s accounts of these events and his own notion of them.

Of course this also brings father and son together, and this leads to a heartwarming, sad and perhaps manipulative finale in which fantasy and reality are truly blended together.  God, it works on me every time, and it’s the reason I revisit this film every once in a while.

Taking a step back and trying to be a little more critical of the film, however, there are what I would call a few problems with the story and its characters.  First off, while Edward is a joyous little character, his unwavering confidence suggests a heavy degree of narcissism.  Everything turns out the way he wants it, and while this is a story told through his own subjective point of view, as well as in hindsight, it makes Edward feel a bit off.  It might just be that this is how we tell stories about ourselves, with ‘us’ as the clear hero and others as villains or background extras, but that dynamic is so thick that it feels at times like Patrick Bateman telling you about his own childhood.

I felt this way most of all when Edward pines for Sandra.  It’s a classic case of the male character growing infatuated with a single image of a female character, both objectifying and idolizing her without ever knowing her.  It’s “love at first” sight, but it’s also a delusion.

When Edward tries to win her over, with what would today be frightening levels of commitment to stalking her, he does so without her reciprocating his advances and then despite knowing she’s engaged to a boy from his own town, Don (David Denman).  And poor, poor Don.  We’re made to see all the ways he feels invisible as a young man due to Edward’s success in every facet of his life back home, and now that he’s finally escaped Edward’s shadow, he of course turns right back up and ruins his life again.

It’s a strange inversion of what we might expect from this story, to have Edward be the not so thinly veiled ‘bad guy.’  Yes we still root for him, but the movie takes conscious steps early on to make sure we see Don as a victim.  He’s never done anything to earn the ways Edward stomps on him, and yet it keeps happening, like a bad karmic joke.  Then it happens again, and I think Burton’s film wants us to consider Edward as the bad guy, if only because why else would he include that in the story?

So Edward Bloom is a blowhard, but we love him anyway.

Up Next: Everybody Knows (2018), Paddleton (2019), Cast Away (2000)

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