Life of a Salesman

Big Fish

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, January 19, 2004


Because Tim Burton directs comedies and fantasies, he has yet to receive an Oscar nomination, despite making movies as memorable as "Beetlejuice," "Batman," and "Ed Wood." With "Big Fish," though, he delivers a film so original, likeable, and expertly acted that even the pompous Academy will be hard pressed to deny him again.

Burton, for example, aces the casting challenge that "The Human Stain" flunked: finding look-alike movie stars who can play the same character at different ages. Albert Finney of 1963's "Tom Jones" and his young doppelganger, Ewan McGregor of 2001's "Moulin Rouge," combine as the title character, while Jessica Lange ("Tootsie") and Alison Lohman ("Matchstick Men") portray his wife.

"Big Fish" is a delightful, often astonishing vindication of much that is out of fashion, including traveling salesmen, the Southern tall tale tradition, and fathers who bring home the bacon but don't share their feelings.

Young screenwriter John August brilliantly adapted Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel into a triumphant reply to Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." Nobody is more scorned in theory than the salesman, especially since Miller's 1949 drama, in which Bernard, the straight-A nerd next door who is Miller's alter ego, gets his revenge on the all-American (and thus doomed) Loman family by becoming a Supreme Court litigator while the Lomans' sports and business ambitions shatter. Yet, nobody is more popular in real life than the successful jock-turned-salesman. To make it in his ego-crushing profession, he must possess the self-confidence, optimism, and wit that the rest of us hope will somehow rub off on us if we buy what he's selling.

After a lifetime peddling wholesale merchandise across America with a smile and a story, Edward Bloom is dying. In contrast to Willy Loman, however, Edward is prosperous because he is not only liked, but "well liked," and precisely because of his refusal to face facts. Everybody loves Edward's comic fish stories, his endlessly polished Davy Crockett-style yarns about his early days.

Everybody that is, except Edward's prosaic son William (Billy Crudup of "Almost Famous"). A fact-grubbing UPI reporter (like me), William flies home to Alabama desperate to get a straight story out of his father at last. When William was a boy, he had hungered for his Dad's rare visits home and believed every word of his whoppers. But, now, about to become a father himself, he wants to know who this man really was.

Infuriatingly, Edward instead charms one last new audience, William's pregnant wife, with his well-practiced fibs, which Burton shows us in hilarious flashbacks.

Back when he was the high school sports hero, Edward had volunteered to save his little town from a hungry 15' tall giant (portrayed affectingly by the 7'-6" actor Matthew McGrory, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records for wearing size 26 shoes). Being a go-getter with a "sociable disposition," Edward easily persuaded the behemoth that they were both big fish trapped in a too small pond.

So, Edward found his new pal a job at the circus. He then spotted the one true love of his life in the bleachers, but she disappeared before he learned her name. The ringmaster (Danny DeVito) promised to reveal one clue about her each month if Edward became his indentured servant. After three years of being shot out of cannons, Edward found her, but was immediately drafted into the Korean War. He parachuted behind Red lines, and escaped only with the help of two beautiful Chinese singers, Siamese twins who wanted him to introduce them to Bob Hope.

Slowly, William begins to grasp that his father's stories do contain some truth, suitably stretched. Who ultimately is Edward Bloom? He's an artist of gab, a Picasso of the pitch.

Moreover, Edward was something that hasn't been much honored in movies lately, especially since the rise of Steven Spielberg, who still resents his father's workaholism. Edward was a good provider, a traveling man who couldn't stand to stay home, but always came back eventually to his wife and son, often with big paychecks.

Unlike Edward, I'm very much the fashionable homebody father. I suspect, though, that styles will change again, and someday my boys will ask, "Dad, why did you always hang around with us, when you could have been out schmoozing clients so you'd have something to leave us in your will?"

Rated PG-13 for a fight scene, some images of nudity, and a suggestive reference.

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