[Screen It]

(2003) (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney) (PG-13)

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Drama/Fantasy: A man tries to come to terms with the life and what sound like tall tales told by his dying father.
Edward Bloom (ALBERT FINNEY) has always been a storyteller and usually one of what sound like extravagant tall tales. While his wife, Sandra (JESSICA LANGE), has never minded, such wild sounding and repetitive stories eventually drove a wedge between Edward and his adult son, Will (BILLY CRUDUP).

Now that Sandra has called Will to inform him that his father is dying and under the care of Dr. Bennett (ROBERT GUILLAUME), Will returns home for the first time in years with his wife, Josephine (MARION COTILLARD). Once there, he tries to figure who is father is.

As he does so, we hear stories of Edward's varied and wild-sounding life as a child. That includes when he saw his eventual fate in the eyes of a local Witch (HELENA BONHAM CARTER) and then later as a young man (EWAN McGREGOR) when he met Karl the Giant (MATTHEW McGRORY) who accompanied him for the first time from his small town. We also see when he first spotted young Sandra (ALISON LOHMAN) while working for circus man Amos Calloway (DANNY DeVITO) and had repeated run-ins with famed poet Norther Winslow (STEVE BUSCEMI).

With the recounting of additional wild sounding characters and stories, Will tries to separate the man from the myth, all while his father recalls his life in his last remaining days.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In Robert Zemeckis' award-winning "Forrest Gump," Tom Hanks played the title character who told others the varied tales of his life, most of which obviously seemed far-fetched to his captive audience. In Tim Burton's somewhat similar "Big Fish," Albert Finney plays a man who also tells what sound like tall tales to his listeners.

It's unclear, however, whether they're true, somewhat exaggerated or completely fabricated. What is clear, though, is that this is a fantastical, mostly engaging and occasionally moving film that perhaps only Burton ("Edward Scissorhands," "Sleepy Hollow") could have directed. It certainly has his signature touches all over it. Yet, it's also a flawed effort that's rather disjointed and episodic, although I suppose that's the nature of the beast as they say.

Adapting author Daniel Wallace's novel, "Big Fish, A Novel of Mythic Proportions," screenwriter John August ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," "Go") has fashioned a magical and sort of old school storytelling tale that hops, skips, jumps and lunges about between characters and times. As the protagonist's son - ably played by Billy Crudup ("Almost Famous," "Charlotte Gray") - tries to come to terms with their strained relationship that stems from what he views as his father's reluctance to admit who he really is, we see the father's various exploits and adventures.

Ewan McGregor ("Down With Love," "Moulin Rouge!") is terrific in the role of the younger Finney. He perfectly captures the Capra-esque personality of a young man determined to escapes the confines of his small town to see the world and win the heart of a young woman -- Alison Lohman ("White Oleander," "Matchstick Men") - he's positive is destined for him.

Along the way, he has all sorts of varied encounters with characters played by the likes of Matthew McGrory ("House of 1,000 Corpses," "Bubble Boy"), Danny DeVito ("Ruthless People," "Batman Returns"), Steve Buscemi ("Ghost World," "Reservoir Dogs"), Helena Bonham Carter ("Till Human Voices Wake Us," "Fight Club") and many others. All of that does give the film something of a Gump feel, particularly as the story moves across the decades. Aside from one reference, however, it's not interested in historical connections, let alone revisionism as in the Zemeckis picture.

Instead, the filmmakers are going for engaging storytelling and, for the most part, they succeed. The film's title is symbolic not only regarding the tall tales - including one about the standard fish that got away - but also the protagonist being too big for the smallness of his hometown.

As a whole, all of that material and the various scenes don't seamlessly come together to create a terrific or perfect film. Yet, some of the moments do standout and/or are fabulous on their own. Among them is a visit to the seemingly idyllic town of Spectre, just on the other side of a spooky forest. Everyone is so happy and everything so perfect there that you'd think you'd die and gone to Heaven. Literally.

Then there are the scenes featuring conjoined twins, a magical "when you meet the love of your life, time stops" moment, and those featuring McGrory as a true giant. Some of the best, however, are the smaller and more intimate moments such as when Jessica Lange ("Titus," "Tootsie") joins Finney in their bathtub (fully clothed and nothing sexual occurs). It's truly a touching moment, as is the finale that's sure to bring a tear to the eye and lump to the throat.

All of it has that fantastical look and feel of a typical Burton film, thanks to Philippe Rouseselot's ("Antwone Fisher," "A Rive Runs Through It") cinematography and Dennis Gassner's ("Road to Perdition," "Bugsy") lush and varied production design.

Performances are good across the board, even if some of the cast members are shortchanged when it comes to screen time. Finney ("Under the Volcano," "Tom Jones") and Crudup make for a credibly estranged father/son duo, with the older actor delivering a fine take on his character.

While the film is a blast to watch visually and certainly engaging in its old-fashioned way of spinning its fantastical tale, it's too bad it doesn't fit together just a bit better as a collective whole. That doesn't mean you won't enjoy or be fascinated or even moved by what occurs, but just that it feels like it could have been so much better had everything seamlessly come together. Nevertheless, the memorable "Big Fish" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11, 2003 / Posted December 25, 2003

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