A fish called forgettable 

A review of Big Fish

click to enlarge Ewan McGregor as the young adventurer Edward Bloom.
  • Ewan McGregor as the young adventurer Edward Bloom.

Big Fish (PG-13)
Sony Pictures

It must be an upsetting time for actors from the South, as it seems that everywhere you turn a Brit, Scot or Aussie has snatched up the juiciest Southern roles. Witness Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, in which Brit and Aussie: Jude "the thinking woman's boy toy" Law and Nicole Kidman play lovers separated by that war that's so popular among anachronists and Ken Burns.

In a film that might be categorized as the Dennis Kucinich of Oscar contenders, two more Crown subjects, Albert Finney (Brit) and Ewan McGregor (Scot), star in Tim Burton's Alabama-based Big Fish. Adapted from Daniel Wallace's book, Big Fish is a standard father-son estrangement story that uses magical realism to trumpet a pat and quickly redundant message: Stories, whether real or embellished, are the equivalent of chicken soup for our souls.

The chief raconteur is one Edward Bloom, played in his twilight by Finney and in his dandy prime by McGregor. Bloom's problem is that his love for his own narrative borders on the megalomaniacal. What's more, he adamantly refuses to acknowledge that his tales have less to do with reality than the average Jayson Blair dispatch.

At least that's what Bloom's son, Will (Billy Crudup) thinks, and it's why he hasn't spoken with his father in years. While working as a journalist in Paris, however, he's summoned home after his father falls deathly ill.

Will proclaims that he's never known his dad; that behind the veil of his deep drawl and cracked-out yarns is some other mysterious and perhaps lesser person. With dad on the deathbed, it's now or never for reconciliation. In this healing process, Bloom's stories take us back to his imagined youth.

Here the story revs into montage mode -- not unlike Forrest Gump, but less insulting -- and we watch young Bloom's rise to home-town prominence as a jock for all seasons, a civilian hero, and the town's ambassador for peace with a rather milquetoast giant named Karl.

Bloom's tales are, of course, fantastical, but they also serve as the spiritual link between him and Will. As the former declares early on, "We're the same you and I; you write your stories down and I tell 'em."

Burton's forte is more in the fantastic than the intricacies of human relationships. In Big Fish, whenever the story pops out of the fabulist past, it flounders miserably. The father-son dynamics prove little more than an artifice for Burton's foray into what feels like a synthesis of William Faulkner, the Fishing Network and a 'shroom trip.

Young Bloom does lots of wandering -- into a magical backwoods town whose streets are grass and where no one wears shoes. Then he joins the circus (run by Danny DeVito), until he becomes hopelessly smitten with his future wife (Alison Lohman, who later ages into Jessica Lange).

As Big Fish progresses, one can't help but hanker for some sort of plot twist or anything else to lop more substance onto its facile characters. Sadly, the tall tales fail to mount up to anything more than a showcase for the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot.

A friend watching the film with me couldn't help but gush at McGregor (another thinking woman's boy toy) and his versatility in portraying such a doughy-eyed idealist, as well as his signature role as an Edinburgh crank junkie. This is no doubt true, but McGregor is only one player in a piece that lacks a viable narrative engine and ultimately becomes Tim Burton's most forgettable film since, uh ... that last one ... oh yeah, Sleepy Hollow.

For the record, neither Finney nor McGregor shames the Southern tongue. Perhaps that's because actors from the UK are often required to master a wide range of regional and class-based dialects. Perhaps after nailing the Ragu-thick Glaswegian, Dixie-speak is a cakewalk.

Accents or not, none of the fine performances help make Big Fish anything but a pleasantly forgetful two hours. Chances are that like a dream, it will dissipate from your memory before you toss out your popcorn tub.

-- John Dicker

Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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