Ed Bloom is a man with many stories, but his favorite is the one where he finally caught the legendary uncatachable catfish in a lake near his Alabama home, using his wedding ring as a lure.
The likelihood of that story being true is slim, particularly when you consider the detail that the fish is supposedly a reincarnated pirate. But Ed loves telling it, and folks love hearing it, except his son, Will, who has grown up believing his father to be nothing more than a facade, a tapestry of tall tales, exaggerations and anecdotes. He doesn’t know who his father really is, and it angers him.
That’s the conflict at the center of “Big Fish.” It’s a serious conflict, but the movie is light-hearted and whimsical anyway as it shows a grown Will (Billy Crudup) trying to reconcile with his dying father (Albert Finney) as he recalls many of Ed’s stories. Much of the film is a depiction of these tales, with the younger Ed, a traveling salesman, played by Ewan McGregor.
Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and filtered through the strange and brilliant mind of director Tim Burton, “Big Fish” is unfailingly charming and flat-out INTERESTING: You keep watching not just because of the many likable characters, but because you’re dying to know what will happen next, both in the flashbacks and in the present-day drama of the father/son reconciliation. The whole film is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: tasty, familiar and satisfying (and maybe just slightly nutritious).
Ed’s stories have a folk-tale flavor to them, each one ending with a down-home aphorism. He encounters a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory) who has superhuman strength and seems to get taller each time he re-enters the narrative. He meets a witch (Helena Bonham Carter) in whose glass eye he can see his destiny. He joins a circus run by an impresario (Danny De Vito) with a paranormal secret, and comes across a hidden town so pastoral and picturesque it can’t possibly be real. Somewhere in all this, Ed meets and marries his wife (played by Alison Lohman as a girl, Jessica Lange as an older woman) in a sweet, chivalric series of anecdotes.
Ewan McGregor’s natural charisma and pleasant demeanor make Ed a worthy protagonist in his tales, but Albert Finney is the one to watch here. As the older Ed Bloom, Finney owns every scene he’s in, even though he’s in bed for most of them. Ed is the sort of congenially cantankerous old Southern gentleman with a quick smile and a million jokes to tell. It’s impossible not to like him, and it’s impossible not to watch when Finney is on the screen.
How could Will be upset with a man this amiable and friendly? That’s what everyone around him wonders. But none of them are Ed’s son, nor are they Will’s father, and the father/son relationship is often fraught with misunderstanding and emotional distance. Will and Ed don’t “get” each other, and that’s a problem only they can solve. As an audience, we feel like intimate observers, privy to everything either side feels.
The story succumbs to an overdose of weirdness in the end, but not in an off-putting way. I find the sentiment of it all, and the underlying message of love and family, to be wonderfully uplifting. It’s a fun, good-natured movie. Between this and “Finding Nemo,” it’s been a good year for movies that make sons want to go home and hug their fathers.
A- (2 hrs., 5 min.; )