It’s been a couple years since Tim Burton emerged from what we can only assume to be an isolated Gothic mansion to make a new movie. His past few films felt like regressions, and his last (‘Frankenweenie’) was quite literally a remake of his own work. Thankfully, the director has returned with something that, on the surface, is the least Tim Burton-y movie he’s ever made.
However, scratch that pretty surface ever so slightly and ‘Big Eyes’ is very clearly a personal project for the filmmaker, one that’s overtly about the debate of kitsch vs. art, the perils of artistic commoditization, and the nature of artistic ownership (all themes that clearly apply to Burton’s own career).
The film is based on a true story that’s too good to have been invented. It’s about artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings of children with massive, evocative eyes became a pop culture phenomenon. The story opens as the naïve Margaret moves to Los Angeles to become an artist. She soon gets a day job hand-painting children’s cribs and sells her big eyes paintings in parks on the weekend. That’s where she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a minimally talented artist with a natural salesman’s zeal. He seduces Margaret and they soon marry, at which point he starts selling their paintings in a bar.
Unexpectedly, the paintings start to sell and Walter turns them into an insanely popular business. He uses a gossip reporter (Danny Huston) to publicize his every move, opens up his own gallery, and invents postcard and poster art merchandising. The only catch is that Walter takes credit for all of Margaret’s paintings, claiming that they’re easier to sell if he’s listed as the artist. Soon, Walter makes millions from the paintings while Margaret slaves away creating them day and night behind a locked door in their mansion. Art critics hate the work, but the public can’t stop buying it. Margaret becomes increasingly withdrawn and depressed, while Walter becomes increasingly alcoholic and abusive. Eventually, they split up as a couple, but continue the lie as a business. Finally, Margaret decides to claim the work as her own and has to go to court to prove her case.
Unlike most Tim Burton movies, this one doesn’t have a single shadowy castle or T-shirt friendly goth fantasy in sight. Burton has deliberately sublimated his own distinct voice to tell this story about the value of a distinct artistic voice. It’s an intriguing choice. At the same time, the film has a beautiful aesthetic defined by a blinding pastel color palate, oddball modernist architecture, and exaggerated period costuming. Many critics have claimed that this is a stylistically bland project for Burton, but there is a distinct style here for those who look. Much like how he shot ‘Ed Wood’ as a beautiful black-and-white B-movie to mimic the style of its period, ‘Big Eyes’ feels like a feature-length homage to Douglas Sirk’s sumptuous 1950s melodramas (referred to at the time as B-level “women’s pictures”) to capture the style of its period.
Like Sirk, Burton employs bright and beautifully expressive cinematography that often elevates the story beyond melodrama and into the realm of fairy tale, layered with various motifs and meanings. The homage suits the period and material beautifully on a visual level, but also digs deeper. Sirk’s movies were more often than not about submissively independent women seduced into relationships that devolved into abuse, which is also very much the arc here. They also favored big performances and emotions to suit their stories, as well as complicated explorations of morality. Perhaps most potently, Sirk’s movies were considered kitschy trash during their initial release, before later being recognized as genuine art beneath the populism, just like Margaret Keane’s work itself. The Sirk homage was quite a clever and relevant choice on Burton’s part, and it lends the film a very distinct visual style outside of his own – aside from some CGI-enhahnced visions of big eyes in the real world, which are vintage Burton. That guy just can’t help himself.
Beyond the directorial style, the film is also built upon two wonderful performances from Adams and Waltz. Adams embraces the melodrama of the film’s style and delivers grand swells of emotion without ever losing sight of the real woman and her tragedy. It’s yet another exquisite bit of acting from a woman fast becoming one of the most diverse and talented actresses of her generation.
Waltz, on the other hand, milks the gift for gab and creepy smile that Quentin Tarantino tailored two Oscar-winning roles for. His character is complex, and Waltz treats him that way. Though he has a few raging Big Bad Wolf moments, he’s not evil, just deeply screwed up. Walter was a marketing genius and an invaluable part of the Keane partnership. The trouble was that he didn’t know the difference between partnership and ownership. Waltz is a sensitive enough performer to find the humanity in the role and explore it from all sides. He also spots the comedy in Walter’s sleazy salesman chatter and milks that for all it’s worth, particularly in the hysterical climatic trial (which actually had to be toned down from the real events). Both performances are wonderful and carry the film with style and grace.
Special notice must also go out to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose career has specialized in delivering comedic yet truthful bio-pics like ‘Ed Wood’, ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’, ‘Man on the Moon’ and ‘Auto Focus’. The trick that elevates their bio-pics over others is that they pick subjects whose stories have the thematic weight and narrative unpredictability to deserve a film, rather than merely focusing on flagellating famous faces. ‘Big Eyes’ is no exception. It’s a touching true life tale that deserved to be told, whcih also delves into a variety of intriguing ideas about the nature of art and commodity. The film marks the writing duo’s second collaboration with Tim Burton, and I’ve personally awaited it for quite some time.
Although ‘Big Eyes’ doesn’t quite reach the heights of ‘Ed Wood’ (which was an absolute masterpiece), perhaps that was inevitable. The balance between humor and drama isn’t quite as assured, while the melodramatic center to the tale is undeniably cheesy at times regardless of whether or not that’s intentional. ‘Big Eyes’ is far from perfect, but it’s a fascinating combination of truth, humor, beauty and art. It’s pop art with serious intent. I’m certain that Margaret Keane would be proud – possibly even Walter too. (Well, he’d appreciate the attention and money at the very least.)