The Everyman’s Artist: A Review of ‘Big Fish’
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
Tim Burton has a certain talent for telling tales about eccentric individuals. From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure to Batman to Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s protagonists can be counted on to be at least a little on the strange side, if not overtly bizarre. But they are always sympathetic. So it is also with Edward Bloom, the spinner of tall tales from Burton’s latest film, Big Fish.
The film centers around Edward, a fanciful and imaginative storyteller, and his son William, who has grown resentful of his father’s free and easy treatment of the more objective (read: boring) version of events. When young Bloom learns of his elderly father’s imminent death, he hurries home in hopes of finally getting the “true” version of his father’s life out of the old man before he dies. William tells his father to give up the eccentric storytelling for once, but the old man refuses. If William lacks imagination, the problem most certainly does not lie with the elder Bloom.
Indeed, we have seen this conflict in literature and film many times before. In his Chronicles of Narnia Series, C.S. Lewis often laments those grown-ups who lack the ability to see the world in an imaginative way. Lack of imagination is certainly one of the greatest sins in Lewis’ world, and those children who wish to be adult by shunning the fanciful ideas of their young peers usually get just what they wish for — to be banished to the sterile world of adults — or worse — to live with teetotalers and health nuts.
In other words, for Lewis, and apparently for Edward Bloom as well, to maintain a childlike (but not childish) view of the world is a virtue indeed, and we should pity the man who refuses to see this. And while he is always a sympathetic character with genuine affection for his father, lack of imagination is nevertheless a problem with William Bloom. Caught up in pursuit of the objective truth about his father, young Bloom loses sight of what his real mission should be, to understand his father as something beyond the facts and figures and vital statistics.
It is hard to imagine a better choice for directing a film like this than Tim Burton, who has always exhibited a great talent for having a childlike view of the world himself (an excellent example being The Nightmare Before Christmas). I had heard that Stephen Spielberg was the original choice for this film, but fortunately, we have been spared another stunted and tiresome attempt at profundity like A.I., and have instead been treated to this wonderful mixture of fantasy, robust individualism, and even bourgeois virtue.
With all the exaltation of eccentricity and disdain for “objectivity” one might be tempted to think at first that Big Fish is some kind of bohemian elegy, but it is nothing of the sort. Edward Bloom is a self-made man; a salesman who regales his clients with his fanciful and optimistic tales, and who, with his devotion to the ordinary people to whom he caters, has bought himself nice cars, a big beautiful house, and has earned the admiration of his peers. There is a potential for a story like this to take some kind of horrible Easy Rider kind of turn where the protagonist shows his worth by thumbing his nose at what can be taken for granted as the corrupt ordinary world. But that is certainly not the case with Bloom.
As life tends to be a little boring for Bloom at times (as with everyone else since the dawn of time), Bloom takes it upon himself to spice it up a little for himself and for those around him through his story telling. But the bourgeois Everyman, he most certainly is, and a hero he remains.
We probably shouldn’t expect any different from Burton, for it was Dianne Wiest’s Avon lady that saves Edward Scissorhands from his exile, and the ultra-wealthy vigilante Batman who saved Gotham City from corrupt cops and populist politicians. Excluding what critics have called “the unintentionally funny” Planet of the Apes, Burton’s work has always been a feast for the viewer partly because of his colorful and fanciful visions, but also because the heroics of his films are rooted in individuals, who while private and eccentric, serve their fellow men from a genuine desire to be kind, creative, and products of their own free will.
One final point that bears mentioning, but is no more than speculation, is whether or not Edward Bloom is meant to act as some kind of repudiation of that other Bloom of literature, James Joyce’s hero from Ulysses, Leopold. I have not read Daniel Wallace’s book upon which Big Fish is based, but if there is a connection between these two Blooms, it would certainly be fitting. Both are salesmen, both are wanderers, and both have pleasant demeanors, but below the surface, Leopold Bloom is everything that Edward Bloom is not. This old Bloom is an outsider in his own land (he’s a Jewish Irishman), his wife has made him a cuckold many times over, and he is influenced by the incessant droning about the anti-bourgeois duties of “the artist” as articulated by Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego and Bloom’s surrogate son of sorts. Our dear Edward, on the other hand, is nothing but confidence, love, and enthusiasm, and he’s not being ironic. If the Old Bloom is the Modernist hero who will show us everything that is wrong with the bourgeois world, the New Bloom is perhaps our Post-postmodernist hero who has found the world wanting but, through his own creativity, has made a comfortable home for himself in it anyway.
In the end, there are no real bad guys in this film, save for the timeless conflicts, misunderstandings, and miscommunications that have plagued the relationships between fathers and sons from time immemorial. But since even this is overcome for the last few moments of Edward Bloom’s life, the world is set right, and young William Bloom finds an imagination he didn’t know he had, and probably didn’t even know he so badly needed.