Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman
Big Eyes is easily the best live action film that Tim Burton has made since Big Fish, and if that isn’t damning the work with faint praise I don’t know what is.
It’s a shame, because you get the sense that Burton is really trying here, and the true life story that inspired the film should be a natural fit for his concerns and idiosyncrasies. It even has a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the writers of Ed Wood – widely if not quite universally considered his best film.
And yet it just doesn’t hang together.
Big Eyes is the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), progenitor of a ubiquitous series of stylized portraits of sad waifs, and her turbulent relationship with her second husband, Walter (Christopher Waltz), who for years took full credit for the paintings. One look at any of Keane’s paintings and you’ll grasp why her story is a good match for Burton: her waifs are an almost scientifically exact combination of tacky, sentimental and haunting – junk culture artifacts of the sort that have adorned so many of his films. Hell, Burton has been casting (and occasionally marrying) women who look like grown up Keane waifs since Winona Rider in Beetlejuice – indeed, Krysten Ritter fulfills that remit here.
When we first meet Margaret Keane it’s the early ‘60s and she is in the midst of leaving a stifling marriage in the kind of creatively inert suburbia that often crops up in Burton’s oeuvre. Together with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye, with Madeleine Arthur playing the older Jane later), she relocates to San Francisco and takes a job painting children’s furniture in a factory, selling portraits on the side. When she meets Walter at a weekend art fair, he seems sophisticated and worldly, regaling her with tales of a bohemian life studying art in Paris and charming her with his confidence and wit. In no time at all they’re married and exhibiting their work together, but after Margaret’s paintings prove more popular and Walter almost accidentally takes credit for one of them – they both sign their work “Keane” – things begin to change.
Walter is no great shakes as an artist, but he’s a relentless self-promoter and something of a marketing genius. Thanks to his ambition and grifter instincts, Keane waifs are soon all the rage and the family is living high on the hog. However, the trade-off is that the world can never know that Margaret is the artist, not Walter: she produces her paintings in secret and he shills them to the world. It’s a situation that can’t last.
While Big Eyesdelves into issues ranging from early feminism to the commodification of art, at its heart is the notion of authorship – the idea that one’s claim to the fruits of one’s creativity is, or at least should be, inalienable. What makes the film interesting, however, is that it separates that notion from any standard of quality: what matters is the relationship between the artist and the work, not the beauty or significance of the work itself. Big Eyes never, ever claims that Margaret Keane is a great artist; indeed, there are a number of characters, such as Jason Schwartzman’s gallery owner and Terrence Stamp’s art critic, whose chief role is boldly state that she is not. But her work is her work, nonetheless.
I imagine that’s a theme that strikes home with a pop artist like Burton, who has been both lauded and condemned for his work in the lucrative, high profile field of blockbuster cinema. It’s strange, then, that this central idea doesn’t land as well as it should. The film’s episodic, broad strokes structure does it no favours; there’s a kind of plodding “and then this happened” feel to the film, with scenes butting up against each other with little connective tissue and no sense of narrative flow. Couple that with the largely passive nature of Margaret as portrayed in the film and what you have is a story where things happen to our protagonist, rather than our protagonist causing things to happen. Even the drive towards the film’s courtroom climax occurs chiefly because of Jane’s prodding. It makes for a weirdly inert viewing experience.
Which is not to say there aren’t things to enjoy here. Adams and Waltz are eminently watchable, the former projecting a core of steely strength through her character’s meek demeanour, the latter imbuing an incredibly unlikeable and petty man with a kind of broken, sympathetic humanity. It’s also the best looking film Burton’s made in quite some time; he clearly enjoys the kitsch period detail, poised halfway between the sterile ‘50s and the freewheeling ‘60s, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s painterly palette and compositions are often just jaw-droppingly beautiful. “Painterly” is an overused adjective these days – here it’s completely apt, with Delbonnel at times deliberately mimicking the light and texture of Keane’s work.
In the end, Big Eyesfeels like less than the sum of its parts. It’s as if Burton chose to do a film he felt he ought to be excited by, without actually being excited by it. That lack of enthusiasm permeates the proceedings, resulting in a merely decent film when you suspect that, in the hands of a younger Burton, it could have been a great one.
Still, it’s a hell of a step up from Dark Shadows.