When directors set out to be mythical, head for cover, because they usually miss by a mile, and you don't want to be hit by the shrapnel. Alas, Tim Burton's Big Fish is just such a project. Starring Albert Finney as one of the biggest liars -- make that "greatest storytellers" -- of all time and Billy Crudup as the son who's had his fill of whoppers, Big Fish is Burton's homage to the tall tale, particularly as it has manifested itself in the American South. And if ever there was a director who could put over a tall tale, Burton, the creator of Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands, would seem to be the one. But Big Fish is closer to a Robert Zemeckis film than a Tim Burton film -- Forrest Gump instead of Ed Wood. There are macabre touches, to be sure, but there's also a heavy dose of saccharin. I ask you, when was the last time Tim Burton used an artificial sweetener?
Finney's Edward Bloom has been telling stories his whole life -- stories about his whole life. And via flashbacks starring Ewan McGregor as the young Edward, we're made privy to many of them. They're fantastical tales involving giants and witches and werewolves and conjoined twins. And repeating them for the umpteenth time appears to be the only way Edward knows how to communicate. When Big Fish opens, Edward's dying of cancer, which brings home his son, Will, for a final attempt at getting his father to tell the truth. But what if Edward is telling the truth -- a question the movie dangles before us like a big fat juicy worm. The thing is, I barely nibbled at that worm, because the stories themselves are so self-admiringly imaginative. Stories should seduce us with their charms, not clobber us over the head with them. Besides, who needs another story about how wonderful stories are?
Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange star as the younger and older versions of Edward's wife, and they match up so beautifully that it makes your jaw drop. But neither of them is given a life of her own; they're both figments of Edward's imagination, part of his stories. And it starts to dawn on us that Edward may be as bad as Will keeps saying he is, and that's not where the movie means to take us. "I'm a footnote in that story," Will says after Edward regales a wedding reception with the circumstances of Will's birth. And as we listen to Edward launch himself on yet another trip to Storyville, we realize that everybody's a footnote in his stories, that it does seem like he uses them to avoid real contact with his loved ones. Preferring what-might-have-been over what-was is one thing, but Big Fish is so smitten with the magical powers of a good story that it neglects to tell us one.