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For all of its inspired side trips down Imagination Lane (let's call it that, because the "memories" of protagonist Edward Bloom are too majestic to be trusted and too affecting to be discounted), Big Fish is ultimately about one thing: the relationship between a son about to become a father and a father about to become a ghost. The movie is being marketed as one more Tim Burton fantasia, with its luminescent teaser-trailer images of shaggy giants, side-show attractions and small towns where the concrete has been replaced by freshly mowed grass upon which residents tread in bare feet. And, like Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and other smaller wonders in the Burton filmography, Big Fishfeatures as its main character an incorrigible, inscrutable man who could exist only in fairy tales -- in this case, the young Edward, played by a Southern-fried Ewan McGregor with the wide, wet eyes of the truly innocent and adventurous. Burton, a hired gun on this project written by John August from Daniel Wallace's thin novel, signs his name to every scene; Big Fishcould have been made by no one else.
Which makes the scenes between the older Edward (Albert Finney, confined to several death beds) and his son Will (Billy Crudup) -- a journalist seeking just the facts from a father prone to spectacular fictions -- almost revelatory. For the first time, Burton seems comfortable walking around the real world; he doesn't frame the ordinary between quotation marks or populate suburbia with grotesqueries and freaks. Burton, who once used as much distancing irony in his movies as celluloid, seems no longer afraid of ordinary emotion or of dealing with people who might actually walk and breathe and die amongst us. Edward and his wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange, sadly not given much to do), and Will and his wife, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), are just ordinary people living unspectacular lives. For Will, that is and always has been enough. For Edward, who may be the closest to a Burton stand-in in any of his films, that's damned near unacceptable. "I tell stories," Edward says. "You tell amusing lies," Will rebukes.
For as long as Will can recall, Edward has spoken of nothing but witches with fortunetelling glass eyes and bank-robbing poets and conjoined Korean sisters and a small town called Spectre, hidden away from the rest of the world by spider webs and a thicket of man-eating trees. Many of his tall tales are like bad jokes; after a while, it becomes clear he's told these stories not to impress his son but to keep himself interested in his own life. He has become nothing but a cantankerous old man, bedridden and weak and living off tepid cans of Ensure; it's as though Tom Jones, a role Finney inhabited 40 years ago, has finally been trapped in Alabama and tamed by age, though none of the light has dimmed in Finney's eyes.
Josephine is enamored of Edward's stories; she has never heard them and finds them charming and harmless, and she becomes a little girl at the foot of a great storyteller. Or maybe she, like the audience, wants to believe them -- especially the one about how young Edward romanced Sandra (Matchstick Men's Alison Lohman) by turning a university's quad into a field of blinding yellow daffodils overnight and enduring a beating at the fists of the man to whom Sandra had been engaged. There's romance in Edward's stories, more than in real life; every sentence is a Technicolor escapade.
For Will, who defines his relationship with Edward as one of "strangers who know each other very well," the tattered myths are no longer enough. Like all sons who see their fathers first as larger-than-life heroes only to watch them shrink into fragile old men, Will can no longer be entertained by fairy tales. He needs advice, seeks conversation, demands honesty; he's a soon-to-be-father with no role model, save for the liar lying in bed. Will believes the truth will eradicate the distance between them, so much so he's almost delighted to find a hint that his father once had an affair with a woman in Spectre named Jenny, played by Helena Bonham Carter; at least, at last, something tangible about his old man. But even then, there's a truth and thetruth, and rarely do they ever quite meet.
Big Fishplays like a magic realism version of Denys Arcand's new The Barbarian Invasions, also about the reconciliation of a son living abroad and a father dying at home. Arcand, revisiting the chitchatty bohemians of his film The Decline of the American Empire, and Burton, punctuating a man's life with outlandish and beautiful detours, are saying essentially the same thing: Life is the joy you remember, not the truths you can recite. And they both manage to prove that sometimes, death can provide a very happy ending.
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