Tim Burton's Big Fish feels like an attempt to make a fairy tale for grownups. It colorfully, whimsically tells the story of a son who regrets the distance between himself and his dying, yarn-spinning father. I liked some of the images — especially, for some reason, the clown with the pistol in his belly — but something about this particular combination of the shallowness of fairy tales and the dead-seriousness of generational regret isn't very satisfying. Billy Crudup is likable as the realistic character in a sea of larger-than-lifes, but at the end of this road his issues are resolved with the wave of a magic wand, and we're left with little to no insight about fathers and sons.
As a counterpoint, The Barbarian Invasion, also in theaters, takes a similar tale and plays it out with truth and tenderness. There's a fair bit of humor but no fairy tale resolutions. Nevertheless, the characters take some baby steps toward understanding one another, and even if they don't get far, the movie depicts their situations more credibly than Burton's simple drama. The son doesn't know how to respond to his father's impending death except by busying himself with the arrangements — hopping to the task of getting a hospital room, notifying his father's friends, and easing the physical pain of these final days — most of which he accomplishes by making phone calls and waving money, his own brand of magic wand and pixie dust.
But for a more thought-provoking tale of fathers and sons than either of these, stay home and read The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme. Fathers "cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past," he writes. Of course the father in this novel is already dead, but his children are towing him on a cart to his final resting place, and he's putting up the best fight he can muster.
Barthelme is best known for writing absurdist short stories, and even his novels are slim. Like Burton, he took a liking to fairy tales and wrote his own versions of Snow White and the legend of King Arthur (published posthumously as The King).
Barthelme's wit and inventiveness can catch you off guard: he's very funny, so he can't possibly be serious, too. There's a memorable section in the middle of The Dead Father called "A Handbook for Sons" which gives advice for dealing with fathers and provides a few sample "voices" of fathers. The way Barthelme slips into these voices so accurately, like a dollop of realism in the middle of an abstract road trip, has permanently scratched my brain. Many modern writers count Barthelme as an influence, and he obviously is, but I'm not sure that any of them has his ability to paint pictures in so few words.
And filmmakers, too, should wish they could tap into human nature with observations so keen they not only withstand the most outrageous stylistic fireworks but even benefit from them. Barthelme understood that the funny thing about fairy tales is that life isn't so simple, and he achieved much of his humor by putting modern concerns into the heads of dwarves or letting the simple brains of princesses try to tackle real life.
Barthelme's short story "Views of My Father Weeping" acts as a kind of companion to The Dead Father, in my mind. The short story is a strand woven of contrapuntal plots, one about a son investigating how his father came to be run over by an aristocrat's carriage and the other about a father (the same?) who nonsensically jams his thumb into cakes and otherwise behaves like a child. Likewise, the title character of the novel is a combination of seemingly contradictory traits: overbearing, ancient, obsolete, childish, embarrassing. He's a necessary burden, not easily contained.
Barthelme's juxtapositions have purpose. His non-sequiturs aren't played solely for laughs. Letting fairy tale logic resolve conflicts was his idea of a joke, not a substitute for real thought as it is in Big Fish, which ends by trying unsucessfully to convince us that the tragic relationships of its characters are nothing to worry about at all. Snort some pixie dust, bleed forth a rainbow.