Tim Burton has rightfully earned his place as a stylistically fringe, critically questionable, yet commercially successful director. So, who else would be better suited to helm the story of a stylistically fringe, critically questionable, yet commercially successful painter?
Probably a few, unfortunately.
Burton’s latest film is based on the true events of Walter and Margaret Keane, a power couple of the San Francisco art scene who, from 1955 to 1965, revolutionized a sacred sect of high culture into a mass commercial enterprise. Big Eyes’ staunchest goal is to re-evaluate the dynamic of that power couple by following the rise and fall of a pseudo-misogynist and the journey of the woman he held his domestic, creative and financial prisoner through emotional manipulation and patriarchal pimp hand.
When Walter (Christoph Waltz) and Margaret (Amy Adams) first meet, she’s new to the city, a brand-new divorcee with a daughter in tow. He comes upon her in the park, surrounded by her paintings—the now-iconic images of sad waifs with disproportionately big eyes, natch—pedaling sketch portraits to passersby for half her asking price. He pounces. She is enchanted by his attentive affection and eats up his tales of wanderlusting about Paris. After a conveniently timed letter arrives from Margaret’s estranged husband, deeming her an unfit—see: single—mother, she and Walter are married. The years that follow contain a bizarre case of artistic identity theft, cunning entrepreneurship and a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in reverse.
Some are championing Big Eyes as a widely feminist film, culturally relevant and socially appropriate. But even allowing for the possibility of scant political undertone, it is not of the Rosie the Riveter variety. Margaret allows her husband to splash in the glory of her artistic property for 10 years while he shows her zero appreciation or sympathy, and it’s only when her life is threatened that she escapes to Hawaii. This is a meek woman with weak art and an incredible story, but she’s not chasing justice on the femme frontier as much as she’s fleeing oppression. And only after her husband tries to light her on fire.
Screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) teamed up with Burton for the first time since 1994, when they supplied the script for Oscar-winning biopic on cult filmmaker and camp counselor Edward D. Wood Jr. The film was a critical success—Burton’s playful ghoulishness and unique, uncompromising style of haunted ham complemented the gag-like writing, affording Wood a posthumous dignity the “worst director of all time” hadn’t enjoyed during his career.
The creative integrity of Ed Wood cannot be said of Big Eyes. When Burton films work, they insert us and invest us in the lives of zany characters in a zanier universe (think: Big Fish, Ed Wood and The Nightmare Before Christmas). One of the major malfunctions of Big Eyes is that its universe is a little too recognizable, following a narrative path that, though long and windy, is paved in familiar terrain. The theatrical kitsch that might otherwise work is understated to the point of pander and reads as misused and misunderstood as a stylistic tool.
Like the subjects of Keane’s paintings, the cast gives honest but ultimately hollow performances. Adams is effective, but bored; Jason Schwartzman’s eight seconds of screen time have the heft of a cameo appearance; and Krysten Ritter (looking every bit Elsa Van Helsing) seems like she’s doing a read-through. The role of Walter Keane is out of step for Waltz, and despite his dedication, Waltz and Walter struggle to find a rhythm. Watching as Walter dashes from galleries to nightclubs like a headless peacock, charming and punching and lying his way to whatever real estate he can, riding the waves of good fortune a sharp tongue and shameless self-promotion can bring, you can almost smell his Axe body spray. Walter is rarely suave and never subtle, but Waltz is best as a docile snake and patient, intellectual villain. He, too, seems as trapped as Adams’s protagonist.
The story of Walter and Margaret Keane is bona fide movie material through and through, but rich narrative drama is just not part of Burton’s wheelhouse. Challenging the art world’s widespread dismissal of Keane’s kitschy works is not the goal of Big Eyes, just as the goal of Ed Wood is not to challenge Wood’s unfortunate position in directing history. Burton is trying to bring to life a sympathetic narrative for peripheral artists through his own distinguishable style, but in the process of trying to not distract from a heavy storyline, his visionary directing, though aesthetically vibrant, is severely stunted. The story itself loses its luster.
Regardless, Walter’s is not the only story of opportunity in the wake of disadvantaged circumstance. Not 48 hours after Sony pulled the release and distribution plug on The Interview, which was slated for wide release on Dec. 25, the Weinstein Company announced Big Eyes would take the wide slot that day instead of its previously planned limited slot. Carpe Christmas diem.
Writer: Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp
Starring: December 25th, 2014