24 JANUARY 2004, Page 40

Caught out

Mark Steyn

Big Fish

PG, selected cinemas

here are some fish that cannot be

I caught,' says Edward Bloom, beginning a fishy story he's told friends and family many times in his ever more unhurried Alabama drawl. By the time young Edward (Ewan McGregor) has mellowed and thickened into old Edward (Albert Finney), he's learned that, like a good julep, a good story should be savoured and relished and each leaf chewed over. In the first few moments of the film, we see Edward telling the story of his 'big fish' over and over across the decades, until, finally, he tells it at the wedding of his son Will.

Will is insulted. He's sick of the fish tale. He knows it backwards. And that his father cannot for this one day think of anything new, anything personal, anything that doesn't place dad front and centre, anything other than the same phoney-baloney yarn that reduces his son to an afterthought at his own wedding, is to Will an unforgivable insult. He moves to Paris and is so determined to reject his fabulist pa that he becomes a copy-filer for the UPI news agency: that's his idea of a story — verifiable facts, names, dates, places, things that actually happened.

And then he gets word that his father is dying of cancer, and so he and his French wife fly home. He has no relationship with his dad, except as yet another listener to the fish yarn and the other tall tales. He knows nothing about who his father really is or how he lived his life. And so, before the fish bore becomes the one that got away, Will determines to inflict some serious male bonding.

Tim Burton's Big Fish is about storytelling, about one man who loves it and another who feels cheated by it. But it's hard to make a movie about storytelling when your own storytelling is so bad. There's another movie around at the moment about a son returning from Europe to be with his dying dad — Denys Arcand's Barbarian Invasions. Both films concern the stories we tell ourselves to give our lives meaning. But Arcand wants to dig into the flashbacks to get at the character. Tim Burton can't wait to brush aside the character to get at the flashbacks — the big Burtonian setpieces that evolve from Southern Gothic (spooky old houses in the swamps) to Brigadoon (magical villages where the streets are paved with grass) to Austin Powers (parachuting into a big Commie army show in South-east Asia). These scenes are beautifully rendered, lit in a heightened, stylised colour, and they give you some idea of what Forrest Gump might have looked like if it had any visual style.

But the storytelling is seriously lame. When he's a boy, Edward supposedly stares into a witch's glass eye and sees the manner of his death, and this knowledge liberates him from the faintheartedness with which most of us live our lives. That's a nice idea, but it goes nowhere. I don't know whether this is the fault of Burton, his screenwriter John August or the original novel, but take, for example, the first thing young Edward does when he sets out for adventure from his Alabammy town: he joins the circus. Is that really the best the supposedly boundless imagination of Tim Burton can do? Talk about over-tilled soil: the minute you see Danny Dc Vito as the Ringmaster, surrounded by dwarves, giants, wolfmen, etc., it feels stale, as if Burton's watched Todd Browning's Freaks one too many times.

That suspicion is compounded when Edward's stint in the army is merely a pretext for introducing some hot-looking Siamese twins — actually, Korean twins, cabaret singers with their own heads, arms and breasts, but sharing one pair of long, long legs. For a film about one man's imagination, it has a surprising lack thereof. The only way it can illustrate Edward's imagination is through the crudest visual signposting — here's a giant, here's some conjoined twins. There's a cheapness to the shorthand: the characters don't feel integrated into the story, just dropped in as gimmicks.

In fairness, this is also true of those characters who aren't carny folk. Ewan McGregor falls in love with a stranger he espies from afar and simply announces it to her. Alison Lohman is certainly lovely, but this short cut conveniently absolves Burton of the need to show their love. Just as fish stories tend to be a male activity, so this Big Fish story has little use for women. As Edward ages, the missus role gets taken over by Jessica Lange, who — except for one memorable image — has nothing to do except reaction shots. Same for the French daughter-in-law. And by the time Helena Bonham-Carter shows up you realise that, for all the talk of Edward's 'womanising', the movie is weirdly sexless. As for Will, Billy Crudup plays him as a mope and Burton doesn't care enough about his scenes to connect them up to the gimmicky flashbacks. The result is a story in which nothing is at stake and no one is real enough to be worth taking an interest in. In other words, it's as total a failure of storytelling as one could, so to speak, imagine. In a fish story, it's supposed to be the fish that gets away, not the story. But Burton takes an intriguing premise, gets Finney and McGregor to give it a swaggering confident pitch, and then turns it into a leaden bore. Big Fish has a hook, a line, but it's a sinker.