Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Release Date: December 10, 2003
IMDB Synopsis: A frustrated son tries to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father's life.
I'm fairly certain that I saw this in the theater. I can picture a movie stub from Regal in my head (must be another one from my collection that I've misplaced), and this seems like something I would've gone to see. I was seventeen at the time of its release.
Why it's on the List
We've all met one or two people like Edward Blume before. Edward (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) is a storyteller capable of commanding entire rooms, holding the attention of a large group of people with his elaborate tales. Even if you bring up the subject of icebergs, people like Edward will have an anecdote at the ready. This quality can be very charming and fun initially, but if you spend enough time with people like this, their entire act can grow tiresome.
Will Blume (Billy Crudup) eventually outgrows his father's schtick. In the intimate moments where Edward tells his son these stories before bed, Will is completely captivated. As Edward begins to repeat these stories and share them with others, we see the father/son relationship deteriorate. This is the second father/son conflict movie on my list and it won't be the last.
One of the main things that I love about this movie is that we're able to understand where Edward and Will are coming from. It's easy to get caught up in the charm of Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney; the stories they tell are equal parts entertaining and captivating, but that doesn't stop Will from pouring cold water on his father's audience. Eventually we learn the justification for this. Edward didn't spend a lot of time with his son, and when he did, all he'd talk to him about were the same "big fish" stories.
Due to the structure of their relationship, Will grew up believing that his father had a second life. This drives a wedge between father and son, and the only thing that paves the way toward reconciliation is Edward's failing health. Will seizes this moment to pursue the truth, to find out who his father actually is. In response to his son's Fox Mulder-esque crusade, Edward explains that he's always been his true self, and that if his son can't see that, it's his own failing. In this duality of fantasy and truth, most of us might choose the fantastical version over the mundane reality, but due to Will's overexposure to fantasy, he explains to the Blume's family physician, Dr. Bennett (Robert Guillaume), that he actually prefers the truth.
As is the case with The Fall, Big Fish offers two very different stories--the one at the surface is very fun and imaginative, while the story buried underneath is darker and heavier. I love movies that split time between action-adventure and a complicated relationship. Big Fish's action-adventure side has a lot to offer. There are certain things that Tim Burton does very well, and this script is right up his alley. I'm sure this story works best as a novel, but Burton does a great job of bringing this to life; combining fantasy with real life has always been his forte.
There are five sequences in this film that I will always love:
1. Edward notes that it's true that time stops when you see the love of your life for the first time. As Edward bobs and weaves his way past the people frozen in time, he knocks some popcorn out of his way--a nice touch from Burton. Then, as Edward explains, once time starts again, it moves extra fast to catch up. I love the contrast of the editing.
2. Sandra Blume (Jessica Lange) watches her husband submerged in the bathtub. Sandra gets in and the two share a very sweet moment in the tub. Lange and Finney have great chemistry in the limited scenes that they share. The Edward/Sandra marriage is a believable one.
3. As Edward drives down a rural, Alabama road in a rain storm, his car is eventually hit by waves of water and he soon finds his vehicle at the bottom of a pond. The lights of the car hitting the darkness of the water is beautiful, and having the naked woman that Edward saw earlier in the film swim into frame really adds to the mystique of the shot.
4. Will and Edward are in the hospital and Edward asks his son to tell him the story of his death. Will is reluctant at first and explains that he doesn't know how to tell it. Luckily for us, Edward insists and we're treated to a wonderful payoff for their contentious relationship. Every time I've watched this sequence, I've either choked up or cried. It's a lovely moment and presents a fitting send-off for Edward Blume. Seeing everyone from the film gathered to wave goodbye to him is powerful. If your life has a positive impact on the people around you, not only will that give your own life meaning, but it can give meaning to your death too.
5. For me, the funeral presents a better ending than the one we actually get. The last line of the film talks about how, through Edward's stories, Will's father becomes immortal. That's a cute note to end on, but it's not a new idea; I feel like most of us already know about the power of handing down family stories. Turning my attention back to the funeral, I love the reveal of the people from Edward's tales--the giant is just a very tall man; the Siamese twins are just twin sisters who are metaphorically joined at the hip. As Sandra notes to her son, "Not everything your father says is a complete fabrication." The power of Will's discovery of this fact is felt in a very organic way. To see these different characters interact with each other, gathering around to hear and tell stories about Edward is the perfect conclusion.
There are other moments that I relate to. The witch's house on the outskirts of Ashton reminds of this old house in the town that I started to grow up in. It was this creepy, rickety old building that the neighborhood kids and I thought was haunted. I don't believe anyone lived in it, nor were there urban legends of anyone living in it, but eventually it was knocked down and replaced by a gas station.
Big Fish was the first time I saw Marion Cotillard in a movie. I remember having a crush on her when this was released, and hell, I still have a crush on her. I love the way she humors Albert Finney. Finney is an adorable old man in this--he's very charming and funny. Ewan McGregor makes the transition between young Edward and old Edward seamless. McGregor is able to play cocky without coming off as a huge asshole; instead, he maintains the charm and the Alabama accent might have a lot to do with it. His Minnesota accent on the latest season of Fargo is fine, but it doesn't hold a candle to his accent in Big Fish.
Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito both add some nice humor to the film. I love that it seems like DeVito's Amos Calloway is taking advantage of Edward (and he is), but all of the intel that Amos feeds him is accurate--it's a fitting twist. Norther Winslow (Buscemi) is not just a great name for a poet, but is also a great Southern name in general. Norther's poems are comically simple, and Buscemi does a great job of selling them as works of genius, and playing defensive when he's met with critique. The cast is excellent across the board.
Even though I've been gushing over this movie, I think #74 might too high for it. As noted, I drew comparisons between this and The Fall, and I do feel that Tarsem's film is better. Big Fish is definitely a personal favorite of mine, but after rewatching it, I do realize that there other movies I've written about that I enjoy a bit more.
- This is one of two Tim Burton movies on my list--the other is in my top 15. If I could go back in time, I probably would've selected The Nightmare Before Christmas over The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. That pick was a last minute replacement and if I'm being honest, TNBC had a much larger impact on my childhood. Sorry, Tim, I fucked up.
- Ewan McGregor and Danny DeVito are two actors I love that I won't get to talk about again. I can't point to another McGregor movie that I admire, but he's great in everything I've seen him in. There might be a DeVito movie or two in my top 200.
- Miller's Crossing is one of those movies that I haven't spent enough time with. If I were to add another Finney movie to my list, it would be that one.
- This is it for Jessica Lange as well. I need to rewatch Tootsie soon so I can continue to follow along with the Craig's List podcast. Tootsie is number #65 for Craig. I want to like that one more than do currently; that isn't to say I hate it, I just didn't grow up watching it.
- Marion Cotillard should be on this list a lot more, but this is it for her. That's right, no Midnight in Paris in my top 100; the Cinemapolis crowd must've finally gotten to me. I'll probably have it in my top 200. Cotillard's also amazing in Rust and Bone, La Vie en rose, and especially Two Days, One Night.
- There's one more Buscemi in my top 100, which feels like underrepresentation to me.