March 23, 2014
Big Fish (2003)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup

What it's about. Bloated Albert Finney is about to kick the bucket, but before he goes, his predictably handsome adult son Billy Crudup is determined to learn the truth about his father's life, especially if it contradicts with his father's preposterous tall tales.

Crudup is married to the sweetest Frenchwoman in the world (Marion Cotillard), who is pregnant because it will increase yet further our sympathy for her. She is a photojournalist for Newsweek and travels around the world, particularly to exotic places, despite that making it unlikely she would ever have met desk jockey Crudup.

But the film isn't really about Crudup. Or his elderly and lame doctor, Robert Guillaume. And it certainly isn't about Finney's wife, the ever-radiant Jessica Lange, who, like Cotillard, is perpetually nice. She doesn't even fuss at Finney when he takes a bath with his clothes on, a very odd thing to do outside of a Burton movie.

No, the movie is about the adventures of Finney when he was a young man and played by Ewan McGregor. Despite the fact that both Finney and McGregor are British, in this film they come from rural Alabama. McGregor is a salesman, or something, who saves his hometown from a gentle 15-foot giant (Matthew McGrory) by selling him to the circus and its ringmaster Danny DeVito. Who turns out to be a werewolf. Why? Sight gag.

Anyway, our wandering McGregor encounters the perfect small Southern town, Excrutiating, where there are no blacks, nobody wears shoes, nobody works, all the women are beautiful eligible bachelorettes, and a dance is held every night attended by all. There, McGregor meets failed poet Steve Buscemi, and a forward girl who later grows up to be Helena Bonham Carter and tries to have an affair with McGregor. But she fails, because he is in love with Alison Lohman, the younger version of Jessica Lange.

But before McGregor can marry Lohman, he must dispose of David Denman, who is engaged to Lohman despite being the biggest jerk in the world. McGregor wins Lohman by doing such romantic things as spending his life savings on daffodils and getting beaten to a pulp by Denman. Not to worry, Denman dies of a heart attack the next scene. That'll teach ya.

McGregor's adventures include a stint in the Korean War, where he parachutes into enemy headquarters, steals their secret formula for something, and encounters Siamese singers Ada and Arlene Tai, who perform in English and act like Vegas showgirls even though they are Chinese and perform exclusively for Chinese potentates.

McGregor later encounters Buscemi in Texas, where he has become a bank robber. McGregor tells Buscemi he should become an investment banker, and Buscemi then becomes so successful in the latter occupation that he helps buy back the town of Excrutiating from foreclosure, for no reason other than to restore it as a hobby.

But it is sad that McGregor is now old and overweight Albert Finney, and about to die. Not to worry, he will magically change into a big fish, yet have a lavish funeral anyway. And all his old friends will show up for both occasions.

How others will see it. Tim Burton's bewildering feel-good fantasy was only a middling box office success, relative to its lofty budget. However, it became a big hit in its video release.

The film did well at BAFTA, where it received seven nominations including Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Finney, of course). This proves it helps to stock a movie with well known British actors. The movie lost in all categories, and at the Oscars garnered only a Best Score nod for Danny Elfman, Burton's reliable composer.

Today at, the movie has a whopping 300K user ratings and an extremely high average rating of 8.0 out of 10. The ratings do decline with advancing age, from 8.4 under 18 to 7.5 over 45. Women over 45, by far the most independent imdb demographic, grade it a fairly modest 7.1 out of 10. Perhaps they are as skeptical as myself, concerning the werewolf ringmaster, the laconic giant, the Siamese twins, the cat-loving witch who sometimes has only one eye, the perfect Southern town, and the big fish that eats wedding rings and may or may not be Albert Finney.

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