The good news is Burton has tackled another biopic of people whose lives aren’t obvious choices. Even more promising is he’s working again with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who wrote Ed Wood back in the early ‘90s. Additionally, Alexander and Karaszewski wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt, another splendid biopic of somebody who probably doesn’t deserve the treatment.
The bad news is the film, called Big Eyes, isn’t a particularly good one, which is a real shame. Over the years, I’ll admit to not being the world’s biggest Tim Burton fan. I don’t dislike his work, but I do think he has the tendency to make the same movie over and over and over again. Whether it’s Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in silent movie makeup or the desaturated color palette or the bombastic, boinging Danny Elfman score, there’s a sameness to all of it, regardless of whether or not it fits the material. I really liked Sweeney Todd, because that material fit Burton’s sensibilities like a glove, though it would have been nice to have had a Mrs. Lovett who could actually sing the role.
Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane. As the film opens, Margaret (Amy Adams) is an aspiring painter who’s just walked out on her husband in 1958 (“before it became fashionable,” we’re told in voiceover). After moving to San Francisco, she meets Walter, a fellow painter whose day job is in commercial real estate sales. Margaret’s specialty is paintings of sad children with disproportionately large eyes (thus the film’s title). Margaret says the eyes are the windows to the soul, thus her penchant for making them freakishly big.
While trying to sell her work at a jazz club, Walter (Tarantino regular and two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) is mistaken for the work’s painter and takes credit for it in order to make the sale. A born salesman, Walter is soon selling his wife’s work in droves. The problem is he’s talked her into allowing him to take the credit for the work, since nobody in the early '60s is interested in buying “lady art.”
The paintings are a hit, and soon they open a studio in San Francisco and build a multimillion dollar empire when they begin selling lithographs and postcards of Margaret’s work. Of course, none of this sits all that well with Margaret, who’s more or less banished to her studio, cranking out the paintings while Walter lives an opulent life as a popular artist. And, there’s the little matter of the paintings themselves being reviled by the art community. If you’ve seen a movie before, you know that something’s going to give.
This is easily the least Tim Burton-y movie the director has ever made. He’s subverted his usually visual ticks and abandoned his usual leading man and leading lady. Oddly, reigning in his style leaves a bit of a void. He’s working in a less visual effects-based arena, and it doesn’t really suit him, which I was really surprised by. I was looking forward to spending time with the Burton of Ed Wood, but what we get is something surprisingly bland visually. I wasn’t looking for the pasty faces or the clanging score, but this is a film that could have been made by pretty much any journeyman director. Nobody who watches this will think it’s a Burton picture. It doesn’t appear that subverting his tendencies allowed him to make any new creative discoveries about himself as a filmmaker. It’s just dull.
The lack of visual style wouldn’t be so bad if the lead characters weren’t so very dull. I’m a huge Amy Adams fan, but she’s saddled with playing a weak woman who lets men walk all over her. Even when Margaret finally asserts herself, it’s more out of desperate self-preservation than it is a moral stance against the fraud her husband has talked her into or reclaiming her art as her own. The idea of Christoph Waltz being in a Tim Burton movie sounds like it’s going to be a blast, but this is a strangely miscalculated performance. It’s as if he’s in another movie from everybody else, like the actor locked into the way he was going to approach the role and then never paid any attention to what others in the cast were doing and responding to it. We’re supposed to see how Margaret would be charmed by this guy, but he really comes off as more of a creep. When we first encounter Walter, he’s at an art show wearing one of those blue and white horizontal striped shirts Picasso used to wear. Clearly, he’s a wannabe. A scene near the end of the second act in which he flies off the handle in a drunken rage that nearly kills Margaret and their daughter seems to come out of nowhere. I have no issue with spending time with unlikable characters, but the Keanes are just not very interesting. She’s a self-pitying sad sack who’s created her own prison, and he’s a grinning sociopath, and not in the fun way either. Maybe Depp and Carter would have been better choices to lead the movie after all. Maybe Burton has worked with the same actors so frequently that he’s developed a shorthand with them that didn’t translate to someone else.
The film fares best and really comes to life when it deals with the critical response in the art community to Margaret’s big-eyed paintings. Her paintings, while extremely popular with the public, were reviled in the elite art world. For all intents and purposes, she was the Michael Bay of paintings of big-eyed waifs. “What is art and who is the arbitrator of it?” is a valid and important question and one that I think fits snugly into Burton’s wheelhouse. Burton’s work has been displayed gallery shows before. He’s not unfamiliar with this world. At one point Walter asks, “What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator?” Can bad art be elevated by its own popularity? Is it even art to begin with and who decides? Had the film dealt more with this and spent less time just showing us an unhappy marriage, they might have really been onto something.
Jason Schwartzman has some great moments as the proprietor of a rival art gallery When Walter tries to get him to show the big-eyed paintings, Schwartzman orders him to remove the paintings before “the taste police arrive.” Terrance Stamp was pretty much born to play an imperious art critic from The New York Times. A scene where Stamp and Waltz verbally spar at a swanky party is actually pretty good. But, then things wrap up with a third act showdown over a lawsuit in court, the likes of which we’ve seen a thousand times before in other movies. This may have really happened, but writers aren’t married to the facts when artistic license can be taken. After all, Alexander and Kraszewski wrote a fancy Plan 9 movie premiere that never happened into Ed Wood. There’s got to be a better way of wrapping things up than with a tired, old courtroom battle.
Historically, Margaret Keane is considered a hack, and her work is labeled kitsch and yet we’re asked to consider her life on film. Unfortunately, the film really doesn’t raise the question as often as it should have. If it had, Big Eyes might have been something really special.