A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 475 – Big Fish

Big Fish – June 18th, 2011

Oh, holidays are fraught with peril when it comes to this project. We’d planned to watch this movie for Father’s Day, but then Sundays are the days we tend to go out for theatrical movies if there’s something we want to see and the thing we want to see also has an associated movie in our collection. So what to do? Well, we figured since we weren’t going to have time to watch this with either of our fathers for Father’s Day, we’d go ahead and watch it the day before. Good enough, right? And besides, we did dinner out with my dad last night, watched fireworks with him tonight and we’re going to be doing the heavy lifting for my folks tomorrow when they get a new air conditioner. I’d say we’re golden.

I’ve got to say, the father at the center of this movie is not much like my father. My father has always been a quiet guy, more given to listening than talking and while he loves a good fantasy story he doesn’t create his own. Ed Bloom, on the other hand, well, he loves to tell a good story, and even better if he can make a good story into a great story with some embellishments. Unfortunately his habit of embroidering the truth with fantastic threads like mermaids and werewolves and the obviously false has left his son feeling like he can’t trust a single word his father has ever said. After all, if he lied about the mermaids and werewolves, what else was he lying about? Where does the truth begin when you peel back the fantasy? Will Bloom has no idea and it’s split him from his father for years. Until his father is on his deathbed and Will finally goes home.

The conflict here is the conceit of the movie. As Will struggles to understand his father and discover what the facts are, we get to see the stories he’s so frustrated with. While Albert Finney, as his elderly father, sits in bed and tells story after story to Will’s wife, Ewan MacGregor plays Ed as a young man, beloved by his entire home town, befriending giants, visiting towns that no roads lead to, performing in a circus, accidentally robbing banks, going on daring secret missions for the Army and so on and so forth. So really, the conflict between father and son is set up to be a series of bumpers in between the fantastic adventures of Ed Bloom’s youth.

It’s really a very interesting set-up. I like it even though the bumper portions are a bit of a bludgeon when it comes to emotional impact. There is no question that Ed is dying. So we know that Will is going to have to deal with his feelings about his father somehow. And I will give the movie immense credit in making both Will and Ed sympathetic characters even as they’re at odds with each other. It’s clear that Will loves his father but finds the constant tall tales frustrating and even embarrassing at times. But he’s not really shown to be a stick in the mud. He’s just frustrated at not knowing what to believe. And Will could have been the bad guy here. The father who lied to his son. But he’s not. He’s a good natured guy who always tries to do the right thing in his stories and, it seems, in his real life. I do have one quibble with him when it comes to the circus but I’ll get to that in a moment.

It does help Ed’s character that we get to see him in his own stories. And Ewan MacGregor does a fantastic job as the young Ed, setting out to see the world, encountering the bizarre and unexpected and taking it all in as wonderful. He is an eternal optimist who isn’t afraid to get in there and work for what he wants. His stories aren’t about how he cheated someone out of something or tricked someone. They’re about him helping people and falling in love. Each of the stories feels fuzzy around the edges, a little off-kilter, a little unreal. Which is the point. But they’re done so well that they feel like memories and stories at the same time. And MacGregor sees them largely like we’re supposed to: With a sense of wonder. And I get the impression that that’s what Ed is looking to inspire when he tells these stories. He wants that sense of wonder to be continued. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I like to think that Ed had that sense of wonder his whole life and wanted to share it.

The other thing that helps Ed out here is his wife, Sandra. The story of how he met her and wooed her and got married is as fantastic as any of his others, but it’s clear in the present day that she does indeed adore him. She’s loved him for decades and he’s loved her and they are utterly and thoroughly devoted to each other. There’s a lovely scene where he’s in the bath in his pajamas and she climbs in, also fully clothed, and just holds him and Jessica Lange, as the older Sandra, is so perfect in that scene that just remembering it makes me tear up. This is a marriage between two people so utterly in love that it’s apparent just by looking at them. And Sandra is a lot more down-to-earth than her husband and can communicate with her son a lot better. But she still loves Ed’s stories and sees nothing wrong with them. It’s a point in his favor. A big one, for me.

A negative point for him would be that he does end up getting three of the people he meets signed with a circus that apparently isn’t going to pay them very well or ever let them out of their contracts. It seemed an odd thing to add in there, having Danny DeVito’s ringmaster, Amos, specifically mention that the contract he gives Karl the giant is pretty much taking advantage of Karl. Especially since Ed later leads two more friends in Amos’ direction, likely for the same type of contract. It was an incongruous choice, in my opinion, and didn’t quite agree with all of the other things Ed claims to have done.

Of course, they all seem perfectly happy later on, so I suppose it worked out. As one might expect, the stories turn out not to be as fantastic as Will had always believed. There’s a healthy does of reality in there among the witches with magic eyes and cars in trees. Which Will discovers as he digs into his father’s past with the help of friends and documents stored in his father’s office. The ending of the movie is a wonderful meeting of the two parts that made up the rest of the movie. The fantastic becomes reality and the reality is more fantastic than expected. Of course Will reconciles with his father, and as a librarian (and one focused on children’s literature) I am very much in favor of the power of a good story. Good stories tell us wonderful things and interesting things and make the whole world larger.

The end of the movie made me cry, of course. Way back in the beginning of the movie Ed tells a story of how he found out when and where he was going to die. But we never see it. It’s left to us to decide whether this bit of story was fact or fiction. And I like that. I like that regardless of what we’re shown to be true, there are things unresolved and unexplained. Who knows what other bits and pieces there were and is it that important? According to the movie it isn’t. And yes, the whole point of Will and his father and the stories being more telling about Ed than Will thought they were? That’s kind of an obvious point. But it’s told so well, through lovely writing and fantastic performances and beautiful cinematography. It’s a good story made into a great story.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Big Fish

June 18, 2011

Big Fish

I told Amanda that we should watch this sentimental tall tale for Father’s Day, and we had planned to do that for a while. A couple days ago, however, we made different plans for Sunday that involved a different movie, so we moved this up a day to watch it on Father’s Day Eve.

This movie is probably the most transparent emotional manipulation I have ever witnessed. I chose it for Father’s Day because it is a story about a son learning about his father as his father is on his death bed. Will Bloom hasn’t spoken to his father in years because he’s a practical man who has become fed up with the ridiculous tall tales his father Ed always tells. When his father’s cancer worsens and it becomes apparent that there’s not much time left for him Will returns home to make one last attempt to find out the truth about his father behind all the fibs, fables and fairy tales.

That’s one way to look at the movie. The tired, mundane, rational way. Most of the movie, however is Ed Bloom’s life as told in his own words. It’s a tale with witches, giants, siamese twins, a werewolf, a hidden perfect town, and of course a big fish. It’s the flights of fancy that really bring the film to life as all the tall tales that Ed tells are brought to life in a magical, soft focus, wondrous way. Ed is not a man overly concerned with things like facts and reality. His life is bigger than that. Will, on the other hand, cannot stand the stories he was raised on, and despairs of ever actually knowing a single true thing about his father’s life. It’s in the reconciliation of these two world views that the movie finds its real magic.

The thing that delights me most in this movie are the fantasy aspects. The stories that Ed tells all have such a familiar feel to them. They have aspects of tall tales, or urban legend, of Greek mythology. Sure they’re impossible, but they have an internal logic that sort of works. I may have to pick up Daniel Wallace’s book, on which the movie is based. Certainly the adaptation for the screen by John August is wonderfully done. We get to see a lot of the stories produced in bizarro Burton style, but even better for me are the hints of other stories that suggest just how many other tales there are that we don’t get to see. Ed starts to talk about seeing an iceberg, for example, which was carried down to Texas to be used for drinking water. He is stopped when he tries to describe the time the family car was carried away by flies.

Also delightful are all the familiar faces throughout the movie. I chuckled to see Missi Pyle and Deep Roy so soon after seeing them in the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie. Steve Buscemi and Danny Devito play supporting roles. Burton of course has Helena Bonham Carter in his movie (playing a couple different roles here.) I always enjoy seeing Robert Guillaume (have I mentioned I once saw him on stage as the Phantom of the Opera?) Then there are the great performances of Billy Crudup as Will, Ewan McGregor as young Ed Bloom in all his stories and an absolutely mesmerizing performance by Albert Finney as the elderly and ailing Ed Bloom who tells us all his wonderful stories.

Tonight was only the second time I watched this film, and I think I actually liked it even more on the second go ‘round. Yes, it’s corny and manipulative. Yes I sob at the end. But it’s also charming and fun, and even has something to say about the importance of fantasy and the nature of truth. Besides which, it’s just a pretty movie to watch. Sometimes that’s enough for me.

June 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment