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Big Fish
Review written by: Alex Sandell

It's hard to gauge your opinion of a film after attending its star-studded premiere.  I met Steve Buscemi during a Minnesota press junket for his 1996 film, Fargo.  We hit it off almost immediately, and I ended up showing him the city of Minneapolis (he was "easing off" his "research" for Trees Lounge, so we ended up at a lot of bars).  Steve isn't quick to forget his friends, and since I showed him the city (or at least its many assorted bars), he has always been kind enough to send me an invite to the premieres of any and all films that he has a role in.  Unfortunately, being a Minnesotan with a fear of flying, I've never managed to get myself to one ... until now. 

Thanks to a longtime friend of mine being asked to housesit in Vermont for his uncle, who's currently campaigning for the Democratic Presidential Nomination, I had a place to stay and a valid reason to visit the Northern East Coast.  So, I hopped in my car and embarked on the 1,000 mile journey.  I spent a week in Vermont playing C-SPAN drinking games and anticipating the Big Fish premiere.  December 4th, 2003 finally arrived, and I took a train to New York City, and found my way to the Ziegfeld Theater, where the premiere was being held.  My pass to the film was stolen from me by a "bum" on the subway wearing an "I do it the eBay way" shirt, and I was afraid I wouldn't be admitted to the premiere. 

I had just given up hope of ever getting inside, when I was fortunate enough to meet up with Ewan McGregor.  I spent a couple of weeks as Ewan's stand-in during the shooting of The Phantom Menace, and hoped to God that he remembered me.  Ewan let me know that Steve had already gone inside, but said that I had "the kind of face a person can trust," and would get me in, after he finished his smoke.  I never did find out if he remembered the stand-in work I did for him.  Either way, the good man got me into the Ziegfeld, and found me a seat next to Janeane Garofalo.  Janeane's date stood her up at the last minute, after Joe Scarborough and Bill O'Reilly joined together and threatened to expose him as a "Liberal Commie Lover" for sitting next to the outspoken actress.

Premieres are extremely weird.  Being that everyone either A. knows everyone or B. wishes they did, the entire theater cheers like mad whenever a name comes up on the credits.  I was wondering if I would even be able to hear the movie, once it began.  Luckily, people settled down a bit after the credits, and I was able to focus on the film.  The only minor distraction was when Tim Burton walked up to Janeane about halfway into the picture, and said, "Fruit Loop."  He then walked back to his seat and never approached the actress again.  I'm still trying to figure out what that was all about.

After the rather plainly directed Planet of the Apes, I was really hoping director Tim Burton would go back to his whacky Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow self.  To an extent, he does.  This is Burton both as a "legitimate" director and as an avant-garde artiste.  Predictably, some of it works about as well as Mars Attacks.  Surprisingly, what's left of it actually works. 

Big Fish is a story about stories.  It doesn't confine reality to a box, nor does it feel obligated to let the audience, or even the characters in the film, know where reality stops and fantasy begins.  Although it consists of numerous fantasy elements, the film plays more as a comedy.  The stories are fleshed out to the degree where you care about what the characters are going through, but never very much about the characters.  The only portion of the film that wouldn't be diagnosed with ADHD is the story a dying Ed Bloom (Albert Finney) and his grown son Will (Billy Crudup). 

The lackadaisical Will is desperate to separate fact from fiction and find out who his "real" father is.  The spirited father isn't ready to accommodate Will's need for the plain truth.  The more Will searches, the bigger fish stories he finds.  What Will spends much of the movie struggling with is the concept that sometimes an exaggeration of the truth can become the truth and that there is usually truth to be found in lies and lies to be found in truth.  In other words, Will wouldn't do very well in the cagey world of politics, policemen or preachers. 

Young Ed Bloom, played with zest by Ewan McGregor, makes the movie fun.  You almost never see Young Ed Bloom in any way other than he is described in Senior Ed Bloom's stories.  Therefore, he's a heroic man filled with zest, and ready and willing to embark on numerous adventures.  Sort of like an intentional Forrest Gump with the story telling prowess of T. S. Garp.  Ed has no fears, being that he looked into the eye of a witch, as a child, and saw how he was going to die.  Having his death foretold essentially stops Ed from fearing death, and allows him to live life.   

And what a life he lives.  Spending three years performing death defying stunts in a circus, in exchange for one monthly piece of information ("she likes music") about the woman he's destined to marry.  Befriending a giant.  Assisting in a bank robbery.  Getting shot by a clown and fending off a werewolf.  The stories are big and bold and so much cock-and-bull.  But they're real to Ed Bloom.  They're fun to those around him.  The only person left bewildered is Ed's only son. 

I like the questions posed by this movie.  What is reality?  Can anyone be as important as they want to be, as long as they have the drive and imagination to fabricate an important life?  Is an ordinary existence not enough?  Are any of us the people we claim to be?  I think a little pixie dust lights up all of our stories, our first dates, our job applications, and our sense of importance.  Is that a bad thing?  If everyone were 100% honest about everything, would anything they say even be worth listening to?  But where do you draw the line?  Does a story become a lie when it ends up hurting someone?  When should fact overtake the fiction?  When does a little white lie turn into a gigantic brown piece of horseshit?  

Big Fish is a poignant film.  It's not always perfect.  It stumbles along in areas, and simultaneously seems too short and too long.  The acting is oftentimes too flat or too enthusiastic; but that's the nature of the beast.  The film is beautifully shot and magically imagined.  It contains imagery that you'll want to hold onto.  More than anything, Big Fish is a reminder to all of us that we are only limited as humans by the boundaries and shackles we decide to use to keep our flights of fancy at bay. 

Now I have to run.  I still haven't gotten around to thanking Steve Buscemi for his invite. 

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Coming soon -- The Butterfly Effect, House of Sand and Fog, and other stuff!

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Text (Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].