Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Review: Big Fish

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/big_fish.jpgBig Fish
2003, Directed by Tim Burton.
Written 28/4/13

I know it probably doesn't mean much, but I tried to review Big Fish once before. I really didn't know whether I found the film's attitudes and ideas deeply problematic or simply reflective of a simpler age. There's something odd about Big Fish that really separates it from Burton's other films, and that's a simple sense of imminent tragedy that underscores everything that occurs, even during the film's fantastical scenarios. It feels so weird that a film about a man striving to discover the truth would so bathe in the ridiculous. It's two completely different films grafted together in a way which feels uncomfortable. Although that might have been the point - the problem being that I'm not sure.
     Edward Bloom, played by Albert Finney as an old man and by Ewan McGregor as a young one, is a folk hero in his birth town of Ashton, in Alabama. His son, Will (Bill Crudup) speaks to his father for the first time in three years in order to discover the truth behind his father's past before he dies. Throughout the film we watch flashbacks, usually narrated by Finney, which display the extravagant tales that Edward tells about his life, including saving Ashton from a giant, finding the creepy town of Spectre, working for a werewolf and stalking his girlfriend until she decides he's better than her current boyfriend and marries him on the spot. After learning that most of what his father says was true (apart from some of the more fantastical elements), Will helps his dying father to his rest by telling an extravagant tale of his own, where Edward becomes the uncatchable fish that he tried to catch at the beginning of the film.
      The film's core romance between Edward and his love, Sandra, tries to be a fluffy true love story, playing with the format enough to make it work. Edward sees her across a crowded circus and decides that he is gonna marry her no matter what, and works at the circus in exchange for a slow trickle of information about her. Eventually he arrives at her University, and when she is engaged to Edward's childhood friend, he continues to stalk her across campus and finishes off with an order of dafodills which probably breaks planning permission laws, leading to a fight between the childhood friend and Edward that leads to Sandra's change of heart.
     Now this is either incredibly clever or incredibly short-sighted, depending on your interpretation of who the film's protagonist really is. If you take the film's view that Edward is the protagonist, then this is once again the heroic and perfect Edward Bloom yet again succeeding where others have failed, conquering adversity to win his true love. If you're like me and take the more cynical view that Will is in fact the protagonist, then this story is one of a bitter man reshaping history to make himself look like the world's greatest dude, and demonising the childhood friend who he didn't like. Either way, Sandra isn't treated as a character - she's more a goal, an aim, a prize. The film doesn't pass the Bechdel test; there are no well-developed female characters in this film that aren't in some way dependant on a male character for their existence in the picture.
"Hey, I never asked, do you get hayfever?"
      The worst thing is that this was probably unintentional. The main theme of the book, and the film (according to the producers) was to do with Will and Edward's father-son relationship and the way that Edward used tall tales as a way of keeping his distance from his own family. The thing is, that dilemma (which is there, don't get me wrong) does get shrouded by the tale of Edward Bloom's perfect life. Edward's stories don't just keep distance between him and those around them, they keep a distance between the audience and the film's core dilemma.
     Big Fish is an entertaining film by any measure, and it's very much up to the viewer to make what they wish of the film's flashbacks and their diversion from reality. I just think that you shouldn't really take them as read, especially when on its own it's the rather dull story of a perfect man, his perfect life, and his whiny-ass son. Too little emphasis is put on what I think the intention was, which is this wonderfully complex idea of a film that you can't really ever trust, where you are as skeptical as Will is and you are on as much of a hunt to find out why Edward is so ashamed to tell the truth.


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