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Big Fish

Young Edward Bloom, almost literally paralyzed by a growth spurt (at least as he tells it), spent his days reading the encyclopedia. One day he read the passage that gave him inspiration - that the goldfish will grow to incredible size if given enough room. And so the boy vows to set his sights high, and make sure that his horizons are broad enough to allow him to become a big fish.

That reality might intrude won't stop him. Indeed, in grand American tradition, facts cannot get in the way of truth, as he weaves stories about himself that step to the edge of the fantastic, and more often than not leap over. But when we meet Edward (Albert Finney) in Big Fish, his greatness has trouble combating mortality.

His son Will (an earnest and unchallenged Billy Crudup) realizes that all he has ever heard from his father are the tall tales of his past. With time running out, Will, a reporter, tries to glean little nuggets of his father's history from the stories that by now everybody in the family tells.

Through Will's exploration, we journey in and out of the past, to the days of Edward the bright young man (Ewan McGregor). And if the audience starts losing track of what is "real" and what is not, it doesn't really matter. The film knows, and it's willing to tell if you're willing to listen.

After the indifferent exercise of Planet of the Apes, director Tim Burton has once again sunk his teeth into a project that obviously matters to him. Like Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish tells of a man who has much to give, and yet has trouble touching the people closest to him. Without the handicap of having tools for hands, though.

Working from a whimsical but weighty script by John August, Burton recaptures the quirks that made him a filmmaker worth watching in the first place. His eye may wander into the macabre, but he can't help making it strangely charming. For one of the few times in his career, he keeps his focus on the emotions of the piece. If one didn't know better, one might even say he cares about Edward Bloom - but more of a breakthrough, he cares about Will.

The story has its shares of grotesques, a factor which Burton obviously found intriguing. As a boy, Edward dares face the town witch (Helena Bonham-Carter), whose glass eye can show you how you will die. The glimpse makes him fearless, allowing him to face down giants, circus freaks, and a few supernatural foes. Oh, yes, and the North Vietnamese, in a dryly funny sequence set during Edward's military career that still allows for an element out of the ordinary.

But there is much beauty, too, especially in Edward's courtship of the love of his life Sandra, played by Alison Lohman in flashback and Jessica Lange in present day. Seeing Ewan McGregor flashing his earnest Superman grin in a field of daffodils will melt female hearts all over. But guys, be warned. Big Fish will squeeze your tearducts, too. As Edward's tales weave tighter and tighter, August's screenplay turns from whimsy to sentiment. Even as Burton's imagery stays firmly in the fantastical, August, adapting a novel by Daniel Wallace, has a few truths of his own to impart. It's Field of Dreams for those of us who throw like girls.

Some of it is left between the lines, such as how the brash and dashing McGregor could grow into the far crustier Finney. Then again, how many men and women have great public faces but fail on the most intimate levels?

Carrying us through such questions and filling in the cracks are top-notch performances all around. Though their southern accents waver from time to time, Finney and McGregor fill Edward with a great life force. I may have asked this before, but come on, when is somebody going to put McGregor in a superhero role? He excels at these larger-than-life parts. Being Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn't count, because George Lucas keeps flattening out McGregor's performance.

Both Lohman and Lange share the luminosity of their character. Finally getting to play an her age (the 24-year-old played ten years younger in Matchstick Men), Lohman gets one of the best screen entrances this year, making a haunting vision of true loveliness.

But it's the character actors that make this film really run. Matthew McGrory exudes charm as Karl, the giant that first terrorizes Edward's hometown, then becomes one of his closest friends. Burton allows old friend Danny DeVito to run from sinister to kind in a role as a mysterious circus ringmaster. Just passing through in more ways than one, Steve Buscemi steals every scene he can. And singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III seems to have found himself a new career as a friendly clueless guy.

Since no movies really have a long theatrical life anymore, it's no crime to say I can hardly wait for Big Fish to hit video. It's worth watching again and again. Put it in a triple feature with Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands, and it's a mini-festival of the quintessential Burton.

Damn, it's good to have him back.


Derek McCaw

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