Lies My Father Told Me

My father, my self: Ewan McGregor in 'Big Fish'
Columbia Pictures

If ever a movie tested the ability of its director's fans to forgive and forget, it's Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. Touted as a "reimagining" of the Apes series, it succeeded mainly in reimagining the gifted fabulist as a tired cynic who'd rather apply fake fur to actors' faces than apply himself to his talent. Me, I forgave the guy--loved him even more for failing, in fact--and his Big Fish reminds me why. Burton's is the story of a fucked-up man in therapy who figures that he probably ought to come to terms with his profound resentment of Dad before the old man croaks, particularly given the imminence of his own parenthood. And if he can figure out a thing or two about his relationship to his life's work in the process, all the better. So the man dares to put his career ambitions on hold in the service of this personal project. He decides to make a relatively little movie (a mere $60 million before marketing) called Big Fish, hoping its happy ending (complete with new arrival behind the scenes) won't compromise his stubborn need to remain a mite remote, conflicted, irrational, in his own head--like Batman.

As cinematic semi-autobiographies go, Burton's is closer to 8-1/2 than to Lost in Translation. Dad, a surreal salesman from whom the director at once recoils and draws his energy, is the essence of the bullshit artist (or maybe just the artist). Looking back on life from the relative discomfort of his deathbed, the habitually embellishing Mr. Bloom (played by Albert Finney) explains that he missed his son's birth because he had a catfish the size of a whale on the line. Fanciful flashbacks to such "events" allow both Bloom and Burton to wander down the hall away from death's door--the raison d'être of art, you might say, if not of human memory itself. We see that back in the '50s the old man (played as an impossibly upbeat young chap by Ewan McGregor) apparently got tips on how to court Mom (Alison Lohman) from a carnival-managing werewolf (Danny DeVito). We see that the daring rescue of conjoined lounge singers in North Korea enabled the fearless Bloom to come of age. And that the telling of these tall tales allowed him some fantastic explanations for why he was never around home when his kid was growing up.

As for the kid, the fact that he's a journalist in his adult life explains his strong distaste for Dad's method of handling logic and reason. Or is it the other way around? (Some of us seek early to become our fathers' opposites.) In any case, the name of this developmentally arrested reporter--Willy Bloom--makes the movie's main question plain, just like the character himself. (As Willy, the messily professional Billy Crudup is, for once, perfect.) Lucky for Burton, there are plenty of other questions floating around in Big Fish. One of them: If making stuff up is how we deal with lives that might otherwise be hopelessly banal and depressing, then at what point do these fantasies--these movies, for example--become absurd, irresponsible, dangerous?

The number of recent films about occupational evasion--from Catch Me If You Can to Shattered Glass, Matchstick Men, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind--would seem to reflect the proliferation of half-truths all around us these days, the unavoidable sense that everything is a show if not a sham. Big Fish, even though it culminates in a reconciliation scene right out of the Jackie Gleason/Tom Hanks soaper Nothing in Common, doesn't pretend to paper the cracks in our experience. Burton, favoring form over content, flavor over fact, has been often criticized for not knowing how to bring his work to satisfactory resolution. But I'd call that a good thing. Blame it on his dad.

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