Of Life and Tall Tales

After spending last week catching up with my favourite book, it was only fitting that this afternoon I turned on the television and happened upon one of my all time favourite movies. Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton, is to date the only film I’ve seen twice on the big screen in the same day, and despite the fact that I own it on DVD and watch it several times a year, whenever Big Fish pops up on TV, I can’t help but sit and watch. Released in 2003, I have loved this film for ten years now, and a decade later, it still manages to tug at my heartstrings just as strongly now as it did at that first viewing.

Big Fish has a lot of the usual Tim Burton elements, including plot points that frequently cross over into fantasy, whimsical settings, and a slew of quirky but endearing characters. Despite these magical elements, the film’s plot is rooted in something all too real and painful: the reconciliation of an estranged father and son during the father’s final days of life. The father and son in question are Edward and Will Bloom, the former a traveling salesman with a flair for storytelling, and the later, a journalist who has long since grown weary of listening to his father’s tall tales. When Will receives a phone call telling him that his father’s days are numbered, Will flies home to make amends and to hopefully finally discover his father’s true self. Edward of course can’t resist a new audience in the form of Will’s wife, Josephine, and over the course of the film, Edward’s life story is told, complete with the flourishes and embellishments for which Edward has become famous.

There are so many things that I love about Big Fish, from the perfect casting, to the sly and understated humour, to the sharply defined characters, but what I love the most is how the art of storytelling is celebrated within one man’s life. There’s a wonderful scene between Will and the elder Edward, played by Billy Crudup and Albert Finney respectively, where Will pleads with his father to tell him something real. Edward’s retort is that everything he’s ever said is true because that’s who he is, and watching Will come to accept this and ultimately embrace his father’s storytelling is as lovely as it is heartbreaking. Ten years in, the final ten minutes of this film never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

The rest of the cast is stunning, with Marion Cotillard as Josephine, and Jessica Lange and Alison Lohman as the elder and younger Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife and one true love. There’s a scene midway through the film between Finney and Lange in a bathtub that runs less than two minutes, has little dialogue, both actors are fully clothed, and nary a kiss is exchanged between them, and yet this scene reveals a more deeper and powerful love story than many romantic films can convey in their entirety. Big Fish may be about the relationship between father and son, but it is the story of Edward and Sandra that gives the film its emotional core. Yet, with all of these wonderful performances, it is Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward Bloom who truly shines.

Portraying Edward as a teenager through to midlife, McGregor is a fountain of charm and charisma, and he sells each and every one of the more fantastical elements of the plot. However, in looking back over the past decade of viewings, I think what has brought me back to Big Fish time and time again is how Edward Bloom chooses to see himself. He is self-assured and supremely confidant, but he’s also kind and compassionate towards all others because he truly cares about people. He is determined and driven, patient and loyal, a hopeless romantic, and the ultimate optimist, all of which are perfectly embodied in McGregor’s performance. In today’s fictional world of tortured anti-heros, it’s refreshing to watch someone who is so genuinely happy and unabashedly delighted with the adventure that is life. More importantly, it’s a good reminder that with the right attitude, real life can be just like the movies.

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