Big Eyes (2014)
Like most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.
In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.
Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.
To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.
There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.
Another problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?
Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.
Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.
Nate’s Grade: B-