Humorless and shambling, Planet of the Apes was one of the more disappointing films of recent years. This is not to say that it was bad (although, come to think of it, it was that too), but rather that it squandered an opportunity, and that Tim Burton’s trademark flair and inventiveness were nowhere to be seen. It was truly a big, loud blockbuster, in which the special effects department seemed to be running the show at the expense of anything resembling story, character, dialog, or coherence. This is true of dozens of other films, of course, but in the case of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton was at the helm, and yet the film lacked any of the dark humor and complexity that raised the likes of Batman and Beetlejuice (and to a lesser degree Mars Attacks! and Sleepy Hollow) above the level of vacuous multiplex fodder. It was like having Michael Jordan on your team and then keeping him on the bench as the opposition walked all over you.
With Big Fish, then, Burton appears to be attempting a kind of career downsizing—a return to his cinematic roots. Nothing blows up in the film, for example, and the screen is often alive with the whimsical flourishes and candy-colored grotesquerie with which Burton made his name. Somehow it still fails to engage, though, but that may have less to do with Burton’s talents as a director, and more to do with the material he is working with and with the difference between the printed page and the silver screen.
In the film, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) returns home to visit his dying father, Ed (Albert Finney), in large part so that he can try to cut through the tall tales the old man has told him all his life and finally find out who his dad really was. Along the way, there are a lot of Bloom Sr.’s outlandish yarns, unreliable flashbacks in which the part of young Ed Bloom is played by Ewan McGregor (who, it must be said, bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Finney) and in which reality seems a lot more elastic than we know it to be. At the heart of the tales is usually some nugget of a true story (How I Met Your Mother, say, or What I Did During The War), but the details are tweaked to make room for 15-foot giants and lycanthropic circus owners and magical hidden towns and glamorous conjoined twins who share one set of legs. Rounding out the cast are Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman, neither given much to do as the older and younger versions of Ed’s beloved wife. Helena Bonham Carter brings to three the total number of British actors attempting Southern accents in the film.
The flashback/story scenes are where Burton is able to reach into his back of tricks and sprinkle the old magic about, but the problem is that Big Fish is ultimately divided against itself. The film’s structure (and Danny Elfman’s syrupy score) indicates that all the most “important” scenes are the ones that take place in the here-and-now–the scenes in which Crudup tries to get to the truth and voices at last his lifelong frustration with his father’s storytelling. Burton rushes through these scenes, though, as if he can’t wait to be done with all the talking so he can get to his next fanciful set piece. In literature, it is possible to have a work of two halves like this, in which each element is given equal weight and equal treatment (think of the novels of John Irving, for example), but film is such a visual medium that it is incredibly difficult to make two guys talking in a room feel as important as a skywritten love-note, or a walk through a time-frozen circus ring, or a witch with a glass eye that can tell the future.
Good actors can help right the balance, of course, and Finney and Crudup are especially good in their scenes together, but for long stretches of screen time, the film’s heart is elsewhere. By the time Big Fish reaches its finale, the deck is so stacked against reality that Crudup’s Will is forced to lean over the fence to his father’s side and spin a yarn of his own. Crudup is a fine actor—he has a quickness and a vulnerability that make him well-suited to this kind of material—but even he has a hard time selling this final act as the satisfying reconciliation it is billed as, rather than the resigned surrender it more closely resembles.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, ” says a character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It is a sentiment that Finney’s old Ed Bloom (and Tim Burton, for that matter) would seem to agree with, although Crudup’s Will might take issue with it. It is a shame, then, that although Big Fish starts out as Will’s story, his is eventually swallowed up by his father’s.
– Ben Stephens