Over the years Tim Burton's career has taken some strange turns, but the common thread through every film he's made is a very frank, even blatant magic realism: think "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman," "Sleepy Hollow." Almost alone among contemporary filmmakers he has insisted on treating the fabulous (in the sense of fantasy) as real, and the symbolic as literal. "Big Fish" is his latest exploration of how the real and the invention intersect.
His protagonist is Ed Bloom, who tells the story of his life in rural Alabama, from childhood to death. As a young man he's played by Ewan McGregor; as an old man by Albert Finney - strange casting, a Scot and a Brit playing with southern accents - yet it worked for me. His life, as he tells it, is a marvel: he meets a witch whose glass eye shows the manner of one's death; he meets a giant, he visits a town called Spectre, where the main street is grass, where no one wears shoes and the town poet (Steve Buscemi) has only the first lines of his masterwork, which begins: "Roses are red, violets are blue…" though later on the two men will collaborate inadvertently in a bank robbery; he parachutes into a Red Army entertainment show in North Korea where he meets a pair of conjoined, beautiful twin singers (our last glimpse of them in the film is a patented Burton miracle); he falls in love with a girl he sees momentarily at the circus, then takes a job there where his boss is Danny DeVito, whose contract with Ed is not to pay him but to tell him one fact about the girl, Sandra (Alison Lohman), every month; it takes three years before DeVito gives him the final clue that identifies her. He pursues her with, among other devices, a college quadrangle miraculously filled with daffodils - well, you get the idea.
And all that, which we see on screen in loving detail, is only half the film. The other half is that all these events are just long-winded lies to his son Will (Billy Crudup), who's a news-agency writer in Paris, now married to a lovely Frenchwoman (Marion Cotillard) and with a child of his own on the way. But then Will is called home by his mother (now played by Jessica Lange) because the aging Ed (now Finney) is dying. Reluctant to go but insistent on hearing the truth at last, he and his wife come home for what Will hopes is an unraveling of the life of lies that's kept them apart.
How that confrontation plays out, and the resolution for everyone that comes of it, is the burden of the film. Unlike some of Burton's other work, "Big Fish" has no sense of danger, of an impending peril, no villain; although there are a few scary moments, there is no evil presence, and for some in the audience that may be a weakness in the film. It was not a problem for me; I found myself wholly entranced by the invention, and happily suspended my disbelief whenever necessary.
There's an odd point of conjunction between "Big Fish" and "The Barbarian Invasions," Denys Arcand's new film about a self-absorbed raconteur on his deathbed; because the two films are so different, they each illuminate the other, and show how infinitely varied are the ways in which we sum up our lives.