At one point during Big Fish, somebody notes that what we think of as evil often isn’t really evil at all — it’s just lonely, and lacking in social graces. The line resonates not so much because of what’s in the film, but because of what we know about the film’s maker. If ever a director was known for sympathies with lonely freaks — the wallflowers of the world — it would be Tim Burton, director of Batman and Edward Scissorhands, writer of The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.
Melancholy. Despite his reputation for darkness and impressionistic production design, Burton’s universe is most often characterized by sadness and verges on despair. Thinking of the moments from his filmography that have stuck with me, I’m drawn to Batman Returns, where he clearly evinces sympathy for the devil, beginning the film with a long sequence tracking the progress of a baby basket set adrift in the sewers of Gotham City. Later, another indelible image has Michelle Pfeiffer prone on the ground, her body broken from a long fall, and a swarm of alley cats flowing inward from the outside of the frame as if drawn to a plate of tuna. And one of my problems with Burton’s Batman movies — though many would cite this as a peculiar strength of the films — was always that, although they allegedly reflected the director’s understanding of the “darkness” underpinning the comic books, Burton never seemed interested in exploring the mindset of the superhero himself in as much detail as that of his adversaries.
Batman was followed by the wonderful Edward Scissorhands — essentially a fairy-tale take on horror-movie formula — and Batman Returns was followed by Ed Wood. Edward Scissorhands cemented Burton’s identification with the ostensible bad guy and amply demonstrated his impatience with middle-of-the-road ideas about what constituted beauty and ugliness, what was attractive and what was frightening. Ed Wood, meanwhile, took as its subject a different kind of supervillain — the director of what are popularly known as some of the worst movies ever made. In Burton’s hands, Wood became a lovable incompetent, and Burton paid him the highest tribute imaginable by staging scrupulous and almost spooky re-creations of scenes from Plan 9 From Outer Space, those clumsy images that are flash-burned into the brains of anyone who grew up watching SF movies on the late show. Among the questions raised by Ed Wood, which included among its flourishes a conversation between Wood and Orson Welles: Assuming its impact on our shared culture is equal to that of its highbrow cousins, is the greatness of a great bad movie necessarily less than that of a great good movie?
Mars Attacks! was a commercial failure, but also one hell of a movie, balancing urges toward a mean-spirited destruction of middle America (“Don’t run! We are your friends!”) by the bullies of the galaxy with awkward groping at a happiness defined by the ascendancy of America’s freaks and geeks as heroes who fend off alien invasion. The narrative is a little wobbly, but the film’s violent energy is utterly manic and the comic timing spot on — a feat I don’t think Burton has exactly managed either before or since. He followed that with a couple of fairly unremarkable but bankable Hollywood blockbusters (I really dug the aggressively bewildering coda he tacked onto Planet of the Apes), and now he allegedly returns to form with Big Fish. Ironically, this very Burtonesque feature was directed from someone else’s screenplay, which was adapted from another author’s book. But it’s one of those movies that somehow seems to have even more to do with the peculiar preoccupations of its director than the ones the director conceives himself.
It’s no surprise to learn that Steven Spielberg was originally attached to the project. As a matter of fact, some of the opening scenes, featuring a group of kids staring, agape, as one of them decides to knock on the door of a local witch’s house, ape Spielberg pretty expertly. But the material really has more in common with Terry Gilliam — specifically The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. Like that film, Big Fish is the story of an old man who habitually spins wild, unlikely stories to the assorted consternation and delight of the people around him. It also has something to say about the relationship between old people and young, those with life experience to fill volumes and those without much but a vague sense of jealousy that their parents are hogging the spotlight.
The father-son stuff is pretty gloppy. Son Billy Crudup is impatient with Dad Albert Finney’s propensity to dominate conversation. Dad comes down with terminal cancer. Reconciliation looms. Burton himself lost a father about a year before starting work on the film — and just recently became a father himself — which may help explain his interest in the material, but most of the scenes sketching out this strained parent/child relationship are ordinary and half-hearted. What really attracted him must have been the opportunity to visualize Edward Bloom’s stories as a series of fanciful vignettes. There’s a gentle giant and a secluded, magical town nestled in the woods along the road less traveled. There’s circus performers, a very Burton-esque pair of twins and a bank robber. There’s Danny DeVito. (Naked.)
These scenes are narrated in almost appallingly sprightly and folksy fashion by Ewan McGregor, who plays Edward’s younger self. (It’s quite something to hear McGregor and DeVito jabbering at each other with Southern accents.) What grates isn’t so much McGregor’s performance — he’s mighty fine, actually, albeit in a disappointingly Gumpish role that closely reprises his open-hearted romantic lead in Moulin Rouge!. It’s the repetitive, episodic nature of the screenplay that drags the film down as it veers back and forth from perfunctory scenes set in the present day to the breathlessly imagined adventures of Storytelling Pa, explicated in an unrelenting voiceover that saps the impressionistic magic in evidence. It’s a shame the film is so busy with dialogue, because the images are so insistently rich and varied (and clearly digitally manipulated) that the combined result is aural and visual clutter.
And the bulk of the film is directed and edited as though Burton were in a terrible rush — fearful of boring his audience, or of letting too much time elapse before his next self-consciously whimsical flourish flutters across the screen. I wonder if the poor guy hasn’t been damaged by his various encounters with the Big Hollywood Machine, since on the whole this feels awkward, like a film made by someone who thinks he has something to prove — or maybe to atone for.
There is a gorgeous scene where Edward, driving through a thunderstorm, is forced to pull over and stop his car and then finds that he’s completely submerged. And once the reliable Helena Bonham Carter, very good in a crucial storytelling role — nothing against Lisa Marie, but it’s nice to see Burton exploiting an equally talented girlfriend — gets a chance to tell her own story (in, yes, another voiceover) the film’s divergent elements begin to make emotional sense. And there’s a tearjerking magnificence to the final reel that, although it’s hard not to see it coming, helps make up for the sloppiness of everything that has come before. With impressive magnanimity, Burton dedicates himself to the film’s ultimate defense of the power and rightness of storytelling, of the ways it allows human experience to draw on itself and multiply, and of the essential comforts it can give those in need. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, etc. But it’s unlikely that you’ll be taken by surprise — which is what Burton’s best films excel at. Accolades and Oscar attention are a near certainty, as Burton gets recognized not just for directing successful strange movies, but for finally joining the Hollywood mainstream. Indeed, Big Fish is the most conservative movie he has ever made.