Directed by: Tim Burton.
Written by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski.
Starring: Amy Adams (Margaret Keane), Christoph Waltz (Walter Keane), Krysten Ritter (DeeAnn), Jason Schwartzman (Ruben), Danny Huston (Dick Nolan), Terence Stamp (John Canaday), Jon Polito (Enrico Banducci), Elisabetta Fantone (Marta), James Saito (Judge), Delaney Raye (Young Jane), Madeleine Arthur (Older Jane).
Tim Burton’s best film, to me anyway, has always been 1994’s Ed Wood. That film was Burton’s portrait of the “worst director in cinema history” – a man who made Z-grade sci-fi, horror and melodrama movies during the 1950s. Wood had all the passion of a true artist, but none of the talent. But Burton loved Wood just the same – and his portrait of him was extremely sympathetic, and in many ways help to rehabilitate his reputation. Burton was still in the first decade of his directing career when he made Ed Wood – and was at the height of his powers. Around that same time he made two great Batman films (in particular Batman Returns) as well as Edward Scissorhands. His films were always visually distinctive, but with a few exceptions, they were also somewhat hollow – great to look at, but without much underneath. In the two decades since Ed Wood, that has just become more and truer of Burton’s work. He has had a few triumphs since Ed Wood – Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) chief among them. But more and more it seems that as an artist, Burton doesn’t really have all that much to say – and since he has continued to repeat his macabre visual style in film after film, even that has somewhat worn thin. Personally, I think he should do more animation – his best film in recent years was Frankenweenie (2012), which indulged all of Burton’s obsessions, and allowed him to mine some nostalgia at the same time. But while there are things to admire about all of his recent films, they have increasingly become emptier and more soulless than before.
Perhaps that is what drew him to the story of Margaret Keane that he tells in Big Eyes – and why he choose to collaborate with his Ed Wood screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, yet again. There is a little bit of Wood in Keane – whose paintings were critically despised at the time, and haven’t been rediscovered as anything other than kitsch in the decades since. But at the height of their popularity, they sold a hell of a lot paintings and posters and post cards, etc. of young girls with haunted and huge eyes. Some have interrupted Big Eyes as Burton’s statement in his own defense – the movie does after all quote Andy Warhol on Keane – that he loves it, and they have to be good. If they weren’t, why would millions of people love them so much?
Big Eyes tells a very bizarre story. It starts with Margaret fleeing one horrible marriage, her daughter in tow, and moving to San Francisco, where she immediately gets herself into another horrible marriage. When she first meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) – he seems to be perfect. Another artist, like herself, but he also has a steady job making good money, while he tries to get his art career off the ground. They marry quickly, and he tries to sell both his and her art – and is amazed when her art starts to sell like hotcakes. Walter was a genius in some ways – a great salesman, he knows how to play the media, and sell himself as an artist, even if he isn’t one. Knowing that people like the meet the artist, he pretends that he painted all those waifs with the big eyes – and she goes along with it, in part because she’s too scared to do anything else. Besides, she is shy, and Walter isn’t. Their empire grows and grows, and she starts to be tormented by all the lies they are telling. And things start to fall apart – eventually culminating in a bizarre trail, where Margaret sues her now ex-husband Walter for slander for continuing the lie that he is the real artist.
There is a story, buried, here somewhere that Burton and his screenwriters only hint at. That is about what the meaning of being an artist really is. Margaret is an artist – she paints to express herself, and knows why she does it. Whether you think she is a good artist, or a hack, like many did, is really up to you – but Margaret is an artist, and her art is personal to her. There are a few moments where it seems like Burton is going to push this story somewhere deeper – a surreal scene in a grocery store for instance, but then he backs off – too in love with the bizarre story to dig past its surface.
Part of the problem is the performances by Adams and Waltz – which are both fine on their own, but don’t fit together at all. Adams plays Margaret quietly and subtly – although there are hints that she is more bizarre than the movie makes her. Waltz goes wildly, crazily over the top as Walter. Both performances are fine – but they belong in different movies.
So once again, we are stuck with the surface of a Burton movie to derive pleasure from. The film doesn’t have the same dark, macabre look that many Burton films do – instead favoring the brightly colored, phony happiness of the 1950s. The film does, for the most part, look great – although Burton indulges himself a little too much at times (a bizarre confrontation between Walter and a New York Times art critic, played by Terrence Stamp, for instance). The surface of the movie is all studied artifice, and unfortunately Burton doesn’t push far enough to see behind that surface. So, in general, it’s another Tim Burton movie – a wonderful surface, masking emptiness. What makes this more disappointing than other Burton movies is that the elements for something more are there – Burton doesn’t seem very interested in exploring them however.