Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Terrence Stamp, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman
Director: Tim Burton
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Let's allow a little snippet of trivia settle in; Big Eyes is Tim Burton's first live action film to not feature Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter since 1996's Mars Attacks! That alone should be a cause for celebration, but there's also the idea of a filmmaker best known over the past decade for overblown whimsy returning to a more independently-minded, personal project. After a slew of massive, and massively terrible, CGI-heavy Hollywood dreck with unwieldy budgets, it's nice to see Burton working on something that at least superficially feels like a return to form. Truthfully, this uniquely odd tale about painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her huckster husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) doesn't initially feel like a Burton film; (it lacks the gothic set design and fantastical tone), but thematically, it falls right in line with his sensibilities, managing to locate that singular obsession with outsider artists struggling against a society at large that doesn't understand them that hasn't been seen since 1994's Ed Wood.
The Ed Wood connection is apt here, not only because it shares the same two writers; (Scott Alexander and Larry Jaraszewski), but also because it strips away most of Burton's worst instincts and allows him to truly engage with the material. The incredible story about how Margaret left her husband and moved to San Francisco, fell in with real estate turned would-be painter Walter, and how a bunch of bug-eyed waif paintings took the art-world by storm is almost too bizarre to be true, but it's the kind of thing made for Burton, who has always dabbled in tropes of kitschy Americana. Here, he utilizes a conventional biopic framework and keeps his penchant for odd angles, arch characterizations, and kooky visual flourishes mostly in check, resulting in a film that's surprisingly attuned to the emotional psychological state of it's lead character. In Amy Adams, meanwhile, Burton has found the perfect actor in order to distill Margaret's contradictory impulses. Not only does she have the meek 50's suburban housewife look down pat, but more importantly, she expresses the intense dichotomy of being a woman artist within a patriarchal society at a time when feminist-leaning ideals were mostly hidden behind closed doors. Adams does this, interestingly, mostly through facial expressions and reaction shots rather than dialogue. It's an impressive performance; modulated with the kind of underplayed nuance we've come to expect from her, but also brimming with pain, anger, and deep-seated feelings of inadequacy.
Of course, the character psychology here isn't really that profound, and Burton has never been known for plumbing the depths of the human soul. Additionally, this surface-level pathology is compounded by Waltz's over-the-top turn as a fraudulent showman whose zany energy nearly chokes out Adam's more balanced work. Still, the fact that this is a real-life personality given to such grandiose displays of intellectual dishonesty is telling, and though Waltz is clearly working in a heightened mode, it makes sense for the character. This is a story where the woman spends nearly a decade locked away in a bedroom painting alien-looking figures with saucer-pan eyes while the man takes all the credit for it. Burton and Waltz's decision to portray Walter as a tragic clown may be jarring, but it's an incisive choice since this is an individual whose broadly cartoonish qualities reveal the farce at the heart of an artistic movement that captured the zeitgeist; something that the film acknowledges as possible "bad art", even as it admires Keane's work with quotes from Andy Warhol. All of the characters here are affectionately satirized, which is nicely complimented by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's slightly heightened, lavishly pastel lensing. Additionally, Burton's direction is subdued and intimate, with only a few fleeting tangents; such as an hallucinatory supermarket sequence, bearing the hallmarks of his typical brand of morbid quirkiness.
Honestly, many will complain that Big Eyes is too safe and conventional (which it is), and that it actually could benefit from a dose of unpredictable eccentricity (which it could). However, Burton's decision to tone things down actually benefits the story, which is fascinating enough, and allows his actors (especially Adams) to deliver moments of emotional truth. Of course, Big Eyes is mostly an embrace of that bizarre moment when the stuffy art-world collided with kitsch; more playful than emotionally or intellectually rigorous, and for a Burton joint, sometimes bland. The film would have been better had the screenplay taken more chances in terms of structure and characterizations; a tough task when dealing with real-life events to be sure, but a worthy endeavor.
Whether Big Eyes is an evolution or simply a step in the right direction for Burton is debatable, but what cannot be denied is the autobiographical thrust of this material and his identification with the idea of art as commerce vs. art as artistic expression. When, in a scene at a fancy dinner party where Waltz goes off on a grumpy art critic (played with curmudgeonly relish by Terrence Stamp) exclaiming that just because something is popular, doesn't mean it's bad, there's a definite connection to the filmmakers recent output. Perhaps it's too on the nose, but there's little doubt that such a scene indicates the director's feelings regarding his own critically lambasted big-budgeted Depp-starring debacles. The difference here in terms of quality is that he has an actual story to tell, one with personal investment and featuring two actors who understand how to get across the themes he wishes to express. Big Eyes therefore emerges as Burton's most personal film since Ed Wood, a picture with a feminist edge and a moral compass regarding male dominance and the role gender plays in producing art; whether good, bad, or popular.