Watching Big Fish brings audiences the lighter-than-air euphoria of seeing a flat expanse of nylon expand into a soaring balloon, but it isn't just one more Tim Burton trip movie. This picture boasts a story about a yarn-spinning Southern father (Albert Finney) and a sober-sided son (Billy Crudup) that gives it ballast and staying power beyond anything in previous, precious Burton fables like Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood.
The central figure is yet another Edward, with the surname Bloom. This hail-fellow-well-met (Finney) is a happy traveling salesman - a Willy Loman high on life - then a jolly investor and businessman. Unlike Loman, he's very well liked right up to his quirkily triumphant final days.
Edward befuddles his rational reporter son, Will (Crudup), who demands to know who his father really is before the old man dies. Will's not satisfied with the tall tales he's heard as dinner-table toasts and bedtime stories, and he doesn't understand why his mother (Jessica Lange) and his French wife (Marion Cotillard) eat this stuff up.
What Will gradually comprehends is that the quality of a man's imagination, including his imagining of himself, reflects his heart, mind and mettle more acutely than any roster of deeds or remembrance of things past. Along with the movie's enraptured viewers, Will gains this wisdom not through the usual groaning "life lessons" but through re-immersion in his dad's engulfing whoppers.
The screenwriter, John August, has exploded Daniel Wallace's affecting novel, magnified its glittering fragments and provided them with an elastic, rounded shape ideally suited to Burton's talents. The movie seizes on the uncanny patterns that emerge during a full life and celebrates any man or woman who can revel in that uncanniness. The picture succeeds because it's naturally supernatural.
Big Fish overflows with set pieces that are both beautiful and uproarious; several feature Danny DeVito as a whip-cracking circus ringmaster who has bizarre nocturnal habits and Steve Buscemi as a stalled minor poet who follows a circuitous route to the position of Wall Street tycoon. DeVito and Buscemi have the knack of inhabiting fairy-tale beings as if they were creatures off the street. These actors carry a unique cracked sorcery into their scenes.
Similar treasures keep tumbling onto the screen in a merry profusion. What takes shape behind them is the treasure chest that is Edward's personality. A Brit plays him in old age, a Scot (Ewan McGregor) plays him in his youth, but this movie's hero is a quintessential American rambler. Size and speed do matter to him, but his ingenuity, generosity and loyalty match his restless appetites. And he's capable of stick-to-itiveness, especially when it comes to discovering the identity of the girl he falls in love with at first sight.
The contrast between this man and his just-the-facts journalist son may be a bit too stark, yet the moviemakers fill their concept out to near-perfection. Abetted by production designer Dennis Gassner (Bugsy), Burton displays a Fellini-like capacity for finding poetry in exaggeration. He stylizes the images in a way that intensifies the pull of the characters, whether they inhabit a sleepy small-town Shangri-La or everyone's dream circus.
Even the black-and-white heightening of the father-son gap may help some people get into the film's robust whimsy. Contemporary Americans, especially educated ones who, like Will Bloom, hang their degrees on cubicles, may be abashed about larger-than-life small-town characters like Edward Bloom. The dishonest, tear-jerking Forrest Gump more or less snuck such a figure into the mainstream by making him equally heroic and pathetic.
But give yourself a scene or two to sync up with the loopy rhythms of Big Fish and you may feel as if you've landed the big one. Edward Bloom is a sharp and charming go-getter, and Burton's genius for conjuring pop-culture excitement makes this down-home legend's odyssey resonant and difficult to resist. The Danny Elfman score and the soundtrack's rock standards mesh with '50s romance when young Edward courts his wife-to-be (Alison Lohman, as a younger Jessica Lange) and counterculture-era hijinks when Edward meets Buscemi's rural Southern poet during a bank robbery.
Although Crudup can't supply brittle Will with any undercurrents, the rest of the lead actors help Burton achieve a new persuasiveness. Finney delivers one of his most satisfying full-roar performances, and Lange makes their team approach a marital ideal. She communicates the delight of a practical woman who shares her husband's gusto. In a glorious scene, she slides into his bathtub fully clothed. Of course, it's a transporting expression of full-bodied love. It's also a brilliant evocation of a wife's ability to tread the slippery path into her spouse's fantasies.
McGregor and Lohman are fresh, complicated and connected - downright miraculous as the couple's younger selves. Because of these four Blooms, shot lovingly by the great Philippe Rousselot (Henry & June), the movie sums up all the transcendent emotion and hilarity of first and final bloom.
Starring Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Ewan McGregor, Alison Lohman, Billy Crudup, Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi
Directed by Tim Burton
Rated R (language, sexuality, drug use)
Released by Columbia Pictures
Time 110 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * 1/2