Monday, June 19, 2017

Big Fish: Film Review

Released: December 10, 2003.
Big Fish (2003) ranks as one of my all-time favorite films.

Yes, it contains themes related to aging.

However, many elements of the film are pertinent to people of all ages:

parent-child relationships (particularly father-son conflicts), courage, family legacies, truth vs illusion, coping with illness--and more.

The bottom line: WATCH THIS FILM!

I rewatched this film on Father's Day weekend with one of my teens.

What was my takeaway this time?

Big Fish illustrates this phenomenon: family members each hold their own version of reality.

My past viewings were informed by my decades of work in English departments.  In 2013, I earned a gerontology degree.  Between my new paid work and upcoming life changes, I'm looking less at the artistry and more at the family roles.

I'm now a midlife person who is launching a young adult son while offering (pitifully inadequate) long-distance support to aging parents.

(Young Edward from birth through childhood is played by more than one character, but the greater portion of the flashbacks are portrayed by Ewan McGregor; late-life Edward is played by Albert Finney. The adult son is portrayed by Billy Crudup.)

Big Fish joins many other narratives about young men seeking to make their mark in the world. It's a coming-of-age story.  But not strictly so.

The frame of the film depicts the late-life Edward Boom relaying snippets of his coming-of-age story to his adult son, Will.

Because of late-life Edward's age and health, his stories also function as a life review.

Life review is a term used by gerontologists (and others) to describe the type of storytelling that older adults conduct as a way to create integrity and meaning for the whole of their life. A life review is often performed when a person senses their life is coming to a close.

Sometimes this act is called Reminiscient therapy, and a licensed professional sometimes helps guide people through the process. Most often a life review happens organically, but family members can help facilitate this by asking questions and listening sympathetically.

Edward has to overcome a series of conflicts throughout his life, and his stories relay how he encounters problems and then succeeds--or circumvents--these problems.

But the primary conflict occurs in the frame tale--the film's present--because his son Will wants his father to tell the truth instead of telling tall tales or "fish stories" about the past.

In scene after scene, these two men butt heads when discussing whether or not Edward is telling the truth, whether or not he's being his authentic self, or whether or not he's being a good father to Will.

As viewers, we sit in judgement as well.  Who is right? Who has integrity?  Who is reasonable?

Because the film is fictional and told through fantastical means, it's impossible for the viewers to take an objective stance.  This isn't a family therapy session: it's a work of art.

The methods of the film are metaphorical and the most powerful evidence in the film's argument are symbols, images, and the many tools of film making.   Nevertheless, fictional stories have practical applications.

If the medium is the message, the film's main point celebrates the power of storytelling.

The entire film is thought provoking, but I just sob during the last fifteen minutes of the film with every viewing.  This father and son have very little time together--by circumstances and by choice. Will they reconcile their differences?

If each family member has their own version of reality, does this mean that one person's view is "true" and every other family members' view is a lie? 

That's not an easy question for families to address.

Asking for the "real story" or the "whole story" can cause a lot of pain, particularly during a family member's final days when other family members are pressing for the ultimate truth.  I don't have a handy answer for how to negotiate through this challenging time and space of life.

But I can attest that reading books and watching films that depict universal concerns help me think more deeply, empathize more broadly with others' perspectives, and consider a wider range of actions than my knee-jerk reactions might dictate.

So the most heavy-handed advice I will offer is this: watch this film and others on aging issues and use them as spaces for meditation.

(In the interest of focus and readability, I didn't discuss the powerful performances by the supporting women in the film: Alison Lohman / Jessica Lang as Edward's wife;  Marion Cotillard as Will's wife, Josephine; and Hailey Anne Nelson / Helena Bonham Carter as Jenny Hill.  This pains me.) 


Talking to Older Adults: Serving as a Witness
Put Down the Book and Go Visiting
Late Adulthood: A Time to Bless


  1. I am going to watch this movie, thanks to you and this review.

    1. Terra: Oh, I hope that you find something specific to your interests. Enjoy!

  2. I should watch this again. I am afraid it was too stream of consciousness and too artsy for me the first time. Now I might have a better grasp.

    1. It is really artsy when the film moves into flashbacks, but the scenes Edward and his son, Will, I find quite moving. Will is more practical and finds his father altogether too difficult to understand. So artsy father and practical son have trouble even finding a plane of existence in which to relate. Anyway, I'm dreamy, like Edward, so I relate to being misunderstood. But to each her own!

  3. This is my favourite movie! A movie for the storytellers among us, of which I am one! :)

    1. Indeed. You probably like the television mini-series of Arabian Nights (2000), another homage to storytellers. Thanks for stopping by the blog. Keep telling those stories!

  4. Thanks for telling me about this film. I hadn't heard of it.