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Tale of a Tub: Albert Finney and Jessica Lange get all wet in 'Big Fish.'

Sink or Swim

Tim Burton's new film, 'Big Fish,' flips between magic and maturity

By Richard von Busack

ONCE, Tim Burton made hit films on his own terms. His biggest success, Batman (1989), created a minor German Expressionist revival. From police dramas to horror, from the movies of David Fincher (Fight Club) to Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), Burton's influence was everywhere. The light in movies dimmed, becoming low and blue. Cities were dark and greasy, ridden with strife and peopled with scarred weird characters.

But Burton's newest film, Big Fish, resurrects the kind of sweetness-and-light storytelling that Burton's Batman once countered. It's Burton's first movie about a conventional winner, and it's hard not to have mixed feelings about this career direction. About the only way to find solace in Big Fish is to think of the film as taking place in a cinematic world without Tim Burton. In that case, Big Fish's emphasis on the fabulous, the macabre and the fatal is exotic.

The advertising slogan ought to be "Definitely not as horrible as Forrest Gump!" But who'd believe that claim after seeing the previews? One coming-attractions shot has Helena Bonham Carter miming wide-eyed wonder, an embarrassment to her and Burton both. The film works a sense of wonder hard as it tells its tales--"fish stories"--of a dying traveling salesman named Edward Bloom (Albert Finney).

Bloom's version of his life is a cross between Horatio Alger and Grandpa Abe Simpson, a legend involving witches, mermaids and a man-sized roaring catfish. For a time, the young Bloom (Ewan McGregor) worked in a circus, slaving away under the direction of a ringmaster (Danny DeVito) with a mysterious streak.

Bloom's estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup), has heard it all before. And since he's about ready to have his own child, Will wants the unvarnished truth, which the old man refuses to deliver.

Having actors from Great Britain like McGregor, Bonham Carter and Finney in the leads takes some of the Southern corn out of the story. A powerful figure like Bonham Carter seems a little out of place in a film where none of the female roles are seriously developed. Our past, 1950-70, was a man's world, maybe, but what's the rationale for Marion Cotillard's performance as Will's wife? She's the most colorless Parisian of the year. Still, Bonham Carter has a typically Burtonesque moment as a prophetic witch, made up to look like Herr Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker. Bonham Carter has a dual role; she returns for a subplot about a vague liaison with Bloom. The movie is unbelievably nervous about the possibility of infidelity, as if we'd never heard a traveling-salesman joke.

In the final third, Big Fish flounders. That's the sequence where Bonham Carter plays Jenny, a yearning spinster--the source of that horrible shot of her, miming childlike wonder. Jenny is part of an incident about a perfect, eerie little town that Bloom visits--just the kind of town that would choose Steve Buscemi as a representative.

Interspersed are gags that are like New Yorker cartoons. Bloom, a soldier on his way to one of our wars in the Far East, is seen studying a phrase book titled English/Asian. (This, like a couple of Bill Murray's one-liners in Lost in Translation, seems to be more about Western foolishness than it is about patronizing Asia.)

A werewolf, back in human form after a rough night out in the woods, scratches his ear with his foot. A Maoist cabaret entertainment for "Asian" soldiers changes from an ordinary sister act to something more fetchingly bizarre. I liked Finney's voice for the film--an Alabama drawl halfway between Randy Newman and Foghorn Leghorn. And he was honorably tear-jerking in his film's finale, set on the banks of a Corot-like river, where strangeness and sweetness meet.

The casting of McGregor as the young Bloom is about right, if you'd seen Finney as the soldier going to die at the Suez Canal in the 1960 movie The Entertainer.

And there's one startling shot in which the young Alison Lohman appears as the woman who will grow up to be Jessica Lange. Later on, when Finney playfully puts his thumb on her chin to console her, Lange's face turns girlish. And, essentially, we see Lohman in her.

Big Fish swims in a risky zone, perhaps too sweet for Burton's regular fans and perhaps too baroque for feel-good viewers. In some ways, Big Fish will be looked at as Burton's first mature film, with only a nodding acquaintance with the supernatural, and with Crudup's character as the wet blanket to his dad's insane tales. But Burton prefers the mad tales to the possibility of troubling reality. He seems--for better or worse--disinclined to grow up.

Big Fish (PG-13; 120 min.), directed by Tim Burton, written by John August, based on the novel by Daniel Walker, photographed by Philippe Rousselot and starring Albert Finney, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange, plays at selected theaters.

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From the January 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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