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January 11, 2004

Burton's Big Fish provides plenty to carp about

Big Fish seems to have lots to offer, riding into movie theaters on a wave of prestige. Six-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney portrays a dying patriarch; Ewan MacGregor hams it up in a role almost as showy as that of his love-stricken artist in Moulin Rouge; and Helena Bonham Carter tries to make us forget that her last major part was Susan in the Steve Martin flop Novocaine.

Upon further reflection, however, I realized Finney's first Oscar nod, for Tom Jones, was years ago, and his last nomination was for the overrated Erin Brockovich. MacGregor is beginning to grate on me, if only because he won't stop complaining about the censors excising his nude scenes in the U.S. release of Young Adam. (Hey, Ewan, if you want to show us your naked bod so badly, why don't you go out with Paris Hilton?) And call me skeptical, but Bonham Carter just delivered her first child with Tim Burton, the director of Big Fish, last October. They'd better be careful—Burton was also fond of casting ex-fiancée and former "muse" Lisa Marie in his projects.

This doesn't mean that the problem with Big Fish is the casting (although any film which strands the masterful Jessica Lange in such a small role is, in my eyes, irredeemable). Big Fish is supposed to be over the top, but it mistakes wackiness for whimsy, sappiness for sentimentality, and cockiness for charm. I doubt any actors could have breathed life into these characters, who are meant to be larger than life but come across as overwhelmingly small.

Big Fish has been advertised as "from the imagination of director Tim Burton," but I spent half the film trying to locate the mind behind such visionary films as Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Sorry, but a giant wandering into a small town just isn't that crazy of a concept, especially when the most "imaginative" thing screenwriter John August wrote him to do was join the circus (taking on the job of sideshow freak also essentially robs the character of his dignity). As for the movie's conjoined twins, accuse me of being hopelessly PC if you wish, but couldn't anyone come up with better names than Ping and Jing? I never thought I would suggest that Tim Burton see the Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You for sensitivity training.

Painful is the only word to describe the experience when the once-great director of Ed Wood dabbles in such dumb humor. Would you believe that a werewolf gets fleas, just like a dog? Whaddaya know—he scratches his cheek with the use of his crusty toenails! And how does this strike you—when a young boy peers into the future with the help of a clichéd old witch, he realizes he's going to die on the crapper, masturbating to an issue of Playboy magazine! Are you laughing yet?

I didn't hate Big Fish—it's much too sweet natured for that—but the sinking feeling I felt during the final credits was no mistake. The last time a director squandered his talent so famously was probably when Francis Ford Coppola made Jack. Like Big Fish, that was a moderately ambitious film with underdeveloped themes. Not a single reviewer panned Jack without noting that Francis Ford Coppola could have done a lot better, and they ought to be just as harsh on Burton's latest effort.

Yet Big Fish seems to be coasting on some sort of Greatest Generation nostalgia, to which I say: not so fast. It's easy to believe the movie's lies, and I'm not talking about the tall tales that unfold in the many fantasy sequences. Few of the characters, particularly Billy Crudup as a bland Will Bloom, are as likeable as we're led to believe. The character of Ed Bloom, both young (Ewan MacGregor) and old (Albert Finney) is kind of like that feverish overachiever you loved to hate in high school. Of course he's a nice guy—what does he have to be mean about?

If that sounds too cynical, consider this: Ed's devotion to his future wife, Sandra (Alison Lohman) is one part romantic and two parts creepy. Think the Police's "I'll Be Watching You," and you're almost there. Call me crazy, but if a guy saw me only once then sold himself into virtual indentured servitude just to collect information about me, I think I would be scared, not flattered. The courtship of Ed and Sandra should have ended with a restraining order, not a marriage license. That's not romantic.

Alison Lohman, who earned raves for her work in White Oleander and Matchstick Men, has a thankless task as the stalked victim—excuse me, love interest. She's very talented, perhaps one of the best Young Hollywood has to offer, but she's stuck here with a weak female role in a movie full of them. To offer another example, Jessica Lange flounders in the role of the senior Sandra Bloom. She doesn't have difficulty playing the part—please, Lange could handle this role in her sleep—but she lacks the one killer scene that could lead to an Oscar nomination, and the character mostly just dithers around the kitchen while all the self-important father-son bonding is going on.

Maybe I'm just cranky because the movie should have been 30 minutes shorter (even the critics who've liked it have complained about the length). Maybe I'm just wary of all the buzz surrounding the film because the last time an "important" movie debuted that handled similar themes—Road to Perdition—the hype proved to be empty. Maybe I just really want to see Ed Wood again. However, none of these excuses shakes my suspicion that Big Fish is simply Not That Good.

Pray for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton's next big project. The director of Pee-wee's Big Adventure is always good, and usually, he's great. But this time around, all we get is an adventure that's just plain peewee size.