The movie is being marketed as one more Tim Burton fantasia. And like Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorshands, Beetlejuice and other smaller wonders in the Burton filmography, Big Fish features as its main character an incorrigible, inscrutable man who could exist only in fairy tales -- in this case, the young Edward, played by a Southern-fried Ewan McGregor with the wide, wet eyes of the truly innocent and adventurous. Burton, a hired gun on this project (written by John August from Daniel Wallace's thin novel), signs his name to every scene. Big Fish could have been made by no one else.
Which makes the scenes between the older Edward (Albert Finney, confined to several deathbeds) and his son, Will (Billy Crudup), a journalist seeking just the facts from a father prone to spectacular fictions, almost revelatory. For the first time, Burton seems comfortable walking around the real world; he doesn't frame the ordinary between quotation marks or populate suburbia with freaks. Burton, who once used as much distancing irony in his movies as he did celluloid, no longer seems afraid of ordinary emotion or of dealing with people who might actually walk and breathe and die among us. Edward and his wife, Sandra (Jessica Lange, not given much to do), and Will and his wife, Josephine (Marion Cotillard), are just ordinary people living unspectacular lives. For Will, that is and always has been enough. For Edward, who may be the closest Burton stand-in of any of his films' characters, that's damned near unacceptable. "I tell stories," Edward says. "You tell amusing lies," Will rebukes.
For as long as Will can recall, Edward has spoken of nothing but witches with fortune-telling glass eyes, bank-robbing poets and conjoined Korean sisters. Many of his tall tales are like bad jokes; after a while, it becomes clear that he has told these stories not to impress his son but to keep himself interested in his own life.
Josephine is enamored of Edward's stories. She has never heard them and finds them charming and harmless. Or maybe she, like the audience, wants to believe them -- especially the one about how Edward romanced young Sandra (Matchstick Men's Alison Lohman) by turning a university's quad into a field of blinding yellow daffodils overnight. There's romance in Edward's stories. Every sentence is a Technicolor escapade.
For Will, who defines his relationship with Edward as one of "strangers who know each other very well," the tattered myths are no longer enough. Like all sons who see their fathers first as larger-than-life heroes only to watch them shrink into fragile old men, Will can no longer be entertained by fairy tales. He needs advice, seeks conversation, demands honesty; he's a soon-to-be-father with no role model but the liar lying in bed. Will believes the truth will eradicate the distance between them.
Big Fish plays like a magic-realism version of Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, another new movie about the reconciliation of a son living abroad and a father dying at home. Arcand and Burton are saying essentially the same thing: Life is the joy you remember, not the truths you can recite. Both manage to prove that sometimes, death can provide a very happy ending.