The last few years, director Tim Burton has seemed to be stuck in something of a creative rut. His movies have seemed to follow the same basic formula:
Step one – Select a project that allows him to indulge his goth/off-kilter tendencies
Step two – Sign up Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter
Step three – Make sure that Depp looks as pale as possible
Step four – Use either a dark or insanely colorful palette. There is no in-between.
Step five – Ground your story in as little reality as possible.
There are the occasional exceptions to these rules – Planet of the Apes is something of an aberration – but for the most part the last ten years this has been the necessary components of a Tim Burton movie. An early version of this template was set with Beetlejuice and then refined with Edward Scissorhands and it’s basically been wash, rinse, repeat ever since. The result has been a series of movies that are diminishing returns; I almost walked out of Dark Shadows because it was so dreadful. I sincerely worried that Burton had broken Depp, an actor that I have long enjoyed but who has seemed to cultivate his own weird side since he started collaborating with Burton. I desperately wanted the holy trilogy of Burton, Depp and Carter to take some time away from each other and try different things; I didn’t necessarily mean that Burton and Carter had to end their personal relationship, but I guess I wasn’t specific enough. So I was very excited when I heard that Burton would be directing Big Eyes and that neither Depp nor Carter were involved. Perhaps this was the shake-up that they all needed. The true story behind Big Eyes was hypothetically kitschy enough to play to Burton’s strengths without letting him go full oddball. Weirdness, but restrained weirdness.
Unfortunately Big Eyes did not live up to the promise that I had for it. While this movie is the closest thing that we’ve seen in a while to a restrained Tim Burton operating in the real world, it also indicates that Burton’s ability to portray actual people is rusty. Big Eyes isn’t a terrible movie – the actual story is too fascinatingly bizarre to not be interesting and draw you in – but it isn’t really a good movie either. A surprisingly off-key performance by the usually enjoyable Christoph Waltz is distracting as he and co-star Amy Adams don’t appear to be on the same page tonally for the duration of the film. Not the worst Tim Burton, but definitely not his best.
Big Eyes tells the story behind this hideous “big eyed waif” paintings that were popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I know that art is subjective, but seriously – can you believe these paintings were actually a big deal?:
C’mon now….that is hella creepy.
For years people believed that the paintings were the artistic brainchild of Walter Keane (Waltz), since he was the loud spoken and charming man who took credit for these creations. But the true artist was Walter’s wife Margaret (Adams); Walter’s true talents were in being a con-man. What he lacked in artistic ability, he made up for in his ability to know how to seize and opportunity and squeeze every last penny out of it. Meek Margaret begrudgingly goes along with the charade; while Walter is wine and dining folks and reaping the perks of celebrity, Margaret is basically locked away in a sweat shop, pumping out paintings for which she receives no accolades and lying to her daughter. The deeper that they get into the fraud and the richer they become, the more controlling Walter is and Margaret feels more uncomfortable and trapped until she’s finally had enough.
Now that’s a pretty interesting story on a lot of levels and the so bizarre it has to be true source material is one of the real strengths of the film. This may not be the most in-depth telling of the story – they seem to gloss over a lot – but at the bare minimum you are quickly engaged with what’s happening on screen. I had a vague idea how this story would play out, but I still was intrigued enough to be invested in the film. If you didn’t know that this was based on what happened in real life, the narrative of Big Eyes could easily be dismissed as simply to outlandish and weird to be realistic. When you have a story this fantastically bizarre, it glosses over a lot of faults. But that doesn’t mean that you still don’t notice the cracks in the structure.
For me, the biggest problem with Big Eyes was the casting of Christoph Waltz. He’s a great actor, but sometimes a person just isn’t the right fit for a role and I think that’s what happened here. I’m willing to overlook the movie never explaining his accent – the real Walter was from the Midwest, not Austria – but the way that he and Burton interpreted the character only exasperated how ill-suited Waltz was for this role. While Amy Adams’ depiction of Margaret is ground in realism, Waltz is way too hammy and over the top for what is going on in the rest of this movie. It’s a weird story in and of itself and it doesn’t need such scenery chewing. He borders on cartoony and it doesn’t complement Adams’ performance at all. In fact, you’re not even sure why the two of them ever got together to begin with – this sad lonely woman and this carnival barker don’t make any sense. Walter is so ridiculous that you have to believe that Margaret isn’t very bright to be with him or going along with his ideas. I just don’t think Waltz was the right person for this role and Burton doesn’t make the necessary adjustments to rein in the performance. Waltz’s Walter would have been more at home in some of Burton’s other movies, which makes me think that Burton simply couldn’t see what was needed here. Just a little bit more restraint or subtlety and it might have worked, though I still think that Waltz just wasn’t the right man for this job.
Some other thoughts:
- Walter’s daughter is none too happy about this film.
- I also had some issues with the use of Danny Huston as the gossip columnist that helped Walter promote their work. I have no idea why his character would even be remotely interested in Walter or these god-awful paintings, let alone help make him a star by writing about him. This is San Francisco – you’re telling me there wasn’t anything else to cover for the society page? Plus thanks to Huston’s work on American Horror Story: Coven, I kept waiting for him to take an axe to Walter’s head.
- Look for Jason Schwartzman and Krysten Ritter in small roles.
In short, I found the story that inspired Big Eyes to be far more interesting than the execution. I’ve spent the last few day since I saw the movie looking more into Walter and Margaret Keane and less thinking about the actual movie. Big Eyes is a mediocre Tim Burton movie that coasts too much on the inherent kookiness of true events and a nice performance from Any Adams, but that doesn’t do much else. Waltz and Adams are in two different movies and this mismatch weakens the effectiveness of the overall film. A slightly less cursory look at this story and some different acting choices and this might be a much better film. Big Eyes is probably not worth seeing in the theater, but worth watching at some point just because of the incredulity of Walter and Margaret’s story.
Big Eyes is currently in wide release.