It would be safe to say that Tim Burton’s star has fallen since he was arguably at the peak of his directorial powers in the late 80’s and early 90’s (the era of Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood and Beetlejuice). Much of his output since the turn of the millennium has been disappointing, save perhaps a few films like Big Fish and (to some extent) his adaptation of Sweeney Todd, heavily relying on frequent collaborator Johnny Depp and (now former, so it seems) wife Helena Bonham Carter and generally losing the depth that made his early output so intriguing, leaving nothing but what could best be described as quirky kitsch. Dark Shadows was arguably his creative nadir, a soulless and uninspired feature film version of the 1960’s TV show. His newest film, Big Eyes, looks to perhaps recapture some of that former magic. Gone are Depp and Bonham Carter, and the trailers seemed to hint at the sort of magical realism that peppered Big Fish, his last truly interesting film.
Attacking the biopic concept for the second time in Burton’s career, the film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a homemaker/painter who flees from the home of her abusive husband to San Francisco, where she attempts to make a career out of her peculiar portrait style. While working as a street caricaturist, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the man who would give her that last name after a whirlwind romance (though she is also partially motivated by protecting her child from living with a single mother in the 1950’s). Walter is himself a painter of Parisian streetscapes, and is taken by Margaret’s penchant for painting her subjects with oversized, saucer-like eyes (hence the name of the film). It is slowly revealed that Walter is more talented as a grifter than a painter, and through some manipulation that appears to be happenstance, begins to take credit for the work of his wife. Feeling trapped by the patriarchal society of the time as well as taken by how successful the paintings are, Margaret agrees to allow Walter to be the public face of the paintings, resigning herself to a life of churning out paintings in a dark room, her resentment slowly growing to its inevitable boiling point.
The first non-credits shot of the film is about as Tim Burton as it gets, a 1950’s suburban street dotted with pastel houses in front of impossibly green lawns underneath an impossibly blue sky. It certainly feels more like early Burton than, say Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, both in style and substance. The trademarked Burton quirk is relatively toned down, predominantly confined to Waltz’s outsized, huckstery turn. It’s a proto-feminist film, hearkening back to a time of women using male pen names to sell works of art that would otherwise be ignored, only finding the courage to step out into the spotlight as the counterculture of the 1960’s slowly began to take over. For its part, the more conventional tone is a welcome change of pace for a modern Burton film, but it is possible that Big Eyes is a case of overcorrection. There is a scene a little over halfway through the film (this is after Walter’s struck gold with the Big Eyes paintings and turned them into a cottage industry of poster prints and postcards) where Margaret, upon coming across a stand of posters of her paintings in a grocery store, starts to see those unnaturally large eyes on the faces of each person she comes across. It’s an exciting moment in a film that needs more of them, a film that otherwise only feels like a Tim Burton film due to its pastel-heavy color palette (which is admittedly gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, working with Burton for the second time).
Arguably more troubling than its relatively staid presentation is how deeply focused Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are on the domestic squabbles of its two Keanes. There are subplots to be found, one involving Margaret’s friend DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter), the women who drew her to San Francisco in the first place, and another involving an increasingly vocal contingent of critics and art exhibitors who point out that the paintings themselves are not particularly good. This second plot is the most interesting to the audience, but the least interesting to Burton. He opens the film with a quote from Andy Warhol about Keane’s art, and how its popularity must presuppose some baseline artistic quality (this comes after the infamous “based on true events” title card), but does not do enough to flesh out the two external antagonists. Jason Schwartzman, playing a bitterly sarcastic modern art gallery owner, and the formidable Terence Stamp, an art critic who savagely pans a special painting commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair, get perhaps a total of ten lines between the two of them, lighting up the screen with even the smallest sense of conflict that exists beyond the Keane household. They are a breath of fresh air (Schwartzman especially, who revels in each of his bemused barbs) that is relied upon far less often than they should be.
Big Eyes ends with a protracted court room scene that crystallizes the issues at the film’s core. Burton chooses to focus on the less interesting aspects of the Keane story, making the story more about a woman who can’t escape the bad men she falls in with than the more intriguing aspects of the story. The courtroom scene is an enjoyable farce that Burton pushes a tad too far, but even that notwithstanding it is still in service to a storyline that seems to exist just to the left of where it should. This is an improvement on recent Burton projects, but it also does not reach the heights of his past work. It is a step in the right direction, however small, and could be a sign of righting the ship after a decade of disappointment. He still has quite a bit of work to do.