When Edward Bloom comes into the world -- his, not ours -- he's just too big for his mother's britches. He literally shoots right out, then glides down the long linoleum hallway of the hospital on a slick of amniotic fluid.
Or so he says, to anyone who will listen to his tales, over and over again throughout his long life and right up to his deathbed, where he tells his self-proclaimed legend one last time to his daughter-in-law, whose husband, William Bloom, is now estranged from his father, a benign egomaniac who neglected young Will for a more stimulating fantasy inner life.
First, let me say that in everyday life I have an awful habit of insisting on reality. I can't make things up, and I don't trust people who do. (That's why we have the movies.) But Big Fish, the story of an unrepentant, unadulterated liar, had a strange effect on me. Directed by Tim Burton, from a novel by Daniel Wallace and a script by John August, it's an exuberant tale of a small-town Walter Mitty who escapes into the monumental world of his dreams only when he's wide awake, and who takes the rest of his waking world along with him.
Spanning the 20th century, and set in a fairy-tale Alabama (no poverty, no racism), Big Fish revolves mostly around two incarnations of Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman to whom little attention would normally be paid, and so he decides to pay it to himself.
As a younger man (played by Ewan McGregor), Edward leaves home at 18 after going deep into the nearby woods in an effort to stop a ghastly giant who has recently started to terrorize the town. Turns out the behemoth only needs a friend because, as Edward learns, most evil things are just lonely. So Edward, who knows he's too big anyway for a hamlet like Ashton, leaves town with the giant to seek his destiny.
Along the way, he happens (ahead of his time) onto a heavenly hidden community, encounters a shifty circus owner (Danny DeVito) who turns into a wolf at night (he, too, is lonely), befriends a pair of conjoined North Korean USO singers, reluctantly joins a renegade poet laureate (Steve Buscemi) in robbing a penniless bank, and woos the girl of his dreams with an improbable field of daffodils. He faces danger along this road, but none of it scares him: As a boy, he and his friends looked into the clairvoyant glass eye of the town's evil witch (Helena Bonham Carter), and in that eye Edward saw the means of his own death. It's a foreknowledge that frees him for adventure because it means he knows he'll survive everything that happens to him.
This wonderful life has pretty much already occurred when we meet Edward, who (now played by Albert Finney) is on his deathbed and waiting to write the final chapter of his imagination. For every piece of autobiography that he made up, his son William (Billy Crudup), a big-city journalist, insists on knowing the truth. Edward's devoted wife (Jessica Lange) smiles wanly through this father-son apocalypse, while the family's ancient doctor (Robert Guillaume) just grins with wisdom. But when Edward won't reveal the truth of the iceberg life of which his son has seen only the illusory tip, William tracks down a woman (Bonham Carter again) who seems to know something about his father's life.
How do you end a movie that counts so much on making us believe that an imagined life is real? With a union of reality and make-believe so perfect and sublime that you'll believe your eyes. Don't try to figure out its plane of existence: Like a dream, it doesn't have one. Most people so lost in their heads ultimately seem a little sad. And so would Edward Bloom if Burton let him be. Instead, Edward is Dorothy in the Land of Oz, learning to click his heels and still not go home. He's Ferris Bueller for middle-agers, or Sherman, the cartoon boy who daydreams himself into history. He's Forrest Gump, only instead of allowing life to happen by chance, he fills the chocolates himself, then eats the ones he wants. He is, in short, the orange who ruled the world: a figure we believe in because we choose to, want to, need to.
Much of the success of Big Fish depends upon its fanciful material and Burton's elegant, ingenuous direction -- he visualizes Edward's world with a quirky surrealism -- and upon two of the most perfect actors working: McGregor (Moulin Rouge), whose range and charisma cannot be measured by any known instrument; and Crudup (Almost Famous, Jesus' Son), perhaps the most naturalistic and elusive actor in American film. Throw in the always crisp and seductive Bonham Carter -- whom we haven't seen much of since Fight Club -- and you have a movie that's driven as much by its un-stars as by its intrinsic beauty and humane intelligence.
At the heart of Big Fish is a very sad story of a man who doesn't understand his father until it's too late. But Burton almost never burdens us with such sobriety. Instead, he stays gloriously inside the parable of Edward's bigger existence, a whimsical Weltanschauung where fish stories are all true, and where the biggest fish is, happily, the one that gets away.