Saturday, August 7, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Big Fish

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Alientraveller

In every generation of Irish families, there is a member known as "The Keeper of the Fable". This is because Gaelic language had been outlawed, and the only way a true Celt could chronicle their family history was via an oral account. The Keeper Of The Fable is always a wonderful storyteller, someone who has a way with words, an ability to enchant and capture the imagination of his/her listeners. Those who are entrusted with this role also have been known to have a remarkable ability to "embroider" a tale. In my father's generation, he was undoubtedly The Keeper of the Fable, and it has been said that in my generation, I have assumed this mantle.

The film "Big Fish" deals with a young man's quest to know what his father has relayed to him his whole life, in terms of truth or fables. A writer for a wire service in Paris, Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) is married to a lovely Parisian photo-journalist, Josephine (Marion Cotillard, in her American screen debut). They are expecting their first child when Will receives the phone call from his mom, Sandra (Jessica Lange, poster girl for naturally graceful aging) telling him that his father, Ed (Albert Finney) is ill with a cancer that's now unresponsive to chemotherapy. Will and Josephine hop a flight to the States, where Will hopes to be finally able to discern fact from fiction in his father's life.

In flashback we see the life that Ed has "narrated" for Will and pretty much anyone else who will listen. It centers on his youth in Alabama and how he left his small town, and charmed the world. "Young Ed" in flashback is portrayed by the energetic Ewan McGregor, who embraces the role convincingly and with great enthusiasm. One of Ed's favorite tales is about how he set about to catch the biggest, most ornery and probably oldest fish in his local river and caught it on the day Will was born. Will tires of hearing this story ad nauseum over the years, and makes no secret of his disdain for such a ridiculous anecdote. Other particulars of Ed's life are also very suspicious to Will, such as how he met and married Sandra, and befriended a giant named Karl, worked at the Calloway Circus, became a decorated Korean War veteran, and so on.

As Ed wanes from his illness, Will begins to realize that the "fiction" he felt his father had concocted may not be totally fictitious after all. While organizing his father's "home office" at his mother's request, he finds a deed to a house in a town called Spectre, signed by a woman named Jenny Hill. Will sets off to find Jenny (Helena Bonham-Carter) in an effort to unravel some of the mysterious elements of his father's past.

I won't give a lot more away in terms of the plot, but suffice it to say that Will discovers there was actually a great deal of truth throughout his father's life, and that truth was in every single epic his father recounted. Jenny also tells him that his father had a lot of fables in his life, but that Will and Sandra were always present in Ed's life as the truth.

The film has so many whimsical elements in it, and very much fits a "fairy tale" theme woven into the fabric of the plot. Set designs of Spectre when Ed first visits it, of the circus, of Auburn University where Ed meets Sandra, are really fantastic, with a strong accent on "fantasy". Acting is uniformly wonderful, with Crudup convincing as an earnest but very bewildered Will, Lange as an adoring wife watching her husband slip away, Cotillard bewitched by the legends related by her father-in-law, and of course Finney himself as the ultimate Keeper of the Fable. My only complaint is that Bonham-Carter's character is supposed to be 10 years younger than Finney's character, but even with "aging" make-up, Bonham-Carter still looks (as she is in real life) considerably younger than the age she's supposed to be portraying. (And Lange looks frankly a bit too young for Finney, too, although in the flashback scenes in which they meet, Alison Lohman as the young Sandra just looks a bit younger than McGregor as the young Ed. Lohman and McGregor are actually about eight and a half years apart.)

The mistake people typically make about The Keeper of The Fable is the assumption that the Keeper merely wants to tell a good tale. What these folks most often forget is that every great fable exists to illustrate a particular point. Or a particular life. The truth is always there to be discovered and appreciated. Even if it's only at the very end of the fable.

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