Tim Burton buttons down his kooky expressiveness with Big Eyes, but the resulting film is one of his better (and more self-reflective) in recent memory.
Big Eyes begins in the 1950s, as the soft-spoken painter Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her troubled first marriage behind her (literally), setting out to begin a new life alongside her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye), in San Francisco. There, Margaret crosses paths with Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic real estate businessman and would-be professional artist, with whom Margaret begins a whirlwind romance – one that quickly leads to marriage as a way of insuring that she won’t lose custody of Jane to her ex-husband.
Walter uses his sales know-how to help Margaret sell her unusual artwork (portraits of children with enormous eyes), but he ends up being mistaken for the artist behind the paintings. When Margaret’s work catches on in popularity thanks in part to her new husband’s sense of showmanship, Walter is able to convince Margaret to keep the ruse going. However, as the Keanes accumulate both fame and wealth from the “Big Eyes” paintings, it takes a toll on their marriage, Margaret’s relationship with Jane, and even Walter’s sense of where his lies end and the truth begins.
Big Eyes marks the second occasion on which screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski worked together with director Tim Burton on a biographical film about a real-life artist; and similar to their previous collaboration, Ed Wood, the strange tale of the Keanes parallels the filmmaker’s own experience in Hollywood, while at the same offering a compelling story that examines topical issues (ex. art world pretenses, social influences on gender roles) told through the lens of a period comedy/drama.
Burton skimps on most of the stylistic flourishes commonly associated with his films for Big Eyes, though a more outlandish visual style feels somewhat appropriate for this biopic’s stranger-than-fiction narrative. At the same time, though, Burton’s choice to dial down his now-familiar production design choices feels appropriate, given one of the key ideas that is examined here – how a quirky form of personal expression can be turned into a soulless brand – and its relevance to his movie career of late. Burton (and his cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s (Inside Llewyn Davis)) choice to take a simple, yet lovely, painterly approach to portraying the movie’s 1950s and ’60s era settings, feels all the more fitting in that regard.
Alexander and Karaszewski’s Big Eyes script has a tendency to be heavy-handed at times (especially in its use of voiceover narration), though on the whole, it’s pretty efficient. This, in turn, lays down a foundation for Burton to deliver his most character-focused and thematically satisfying work of cinematic storytelling since Big Fish (from back in 2003). Big Eyes also harkens back to Burton’s roots as a filmmaker, by offering a funnier and more refined Americana satire than his more over the top recent efforts (see: Dark Shadows).
The way Margaret and Walter’s relationship (one that often parallels that of an artist and their producer), as well as their respective character arcs, is handled results in Big Eyes playing out as much like an expression of Burton’s own frustration about having to work within the studio system as Chef did for Jon Favreau, earlier this year. Big Eyes also ends up being more subtle as a story about Margaret’s journey to reclaiming her own artistic identity; as a screen drama about her own personal empowerment, though, it’s more on the nose.
Amy Adams delivers yet another fine performance as Margaret, portraying the artist as a multi-faceted person – someone intelligent, yet socially aloof and a natural introvert – who would (believably) kowtow to her more extroverted husband’s unplanned scheme, due in no small part to her personal circumstances (as well as the social pressures of the film’s setting). Margaret’s relationship with her daughter, Jane, might’ve benefitted from additional development, though, in order to shed more light on the painter – and her view of the world.
Christoph Waltz likewise delivers another memorable role in Big Eyes, as his (and, in turn, the script’s) version of Walter Keane is more complicated than a straight-forward antagonist. The character’s transformation – from a genuinely supportive husband to an unscrupulous person whose perspective has become warped by their own deception – makes him an effective foil to Margaret. The latter’s journey to self-appreciation and respect becomes all the more fulfilling by juxtaposition.
Big Eyes also includes noteworthy supporting performances by Krysten Ritter (Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) playing Margaret’s hip Californian friend, DeeAnn, as well as Jason Schwartzmann (The Grand Budapest Hotel) playing a snooty San Francisco art dealer, and Terence Stamp (Valkyrie) as an art critic who recognizes the increasing emptiness of the “Big Eyes” movement. These characters are effective representations of how the larger world reacted to the Keanes’ work, but Danny Huston as the reporter covering it all (and the deliverer of the film’s VO narration) isn’t so much a success.
The short of it? Tim Burton buttons down his kooky expressiveness with Big Eyes, but the resulting film is one of his better (and more self-reflective) in recent memory. Theater viewing isn’t an absolute necessity though, even with his style dialed back a bit, Burton’s movie looks all the better on the big screen. And with Big Eyes picking up momentum during the ongoing Awards Season festivities, there’s all the more reason for cinephiles to catch the film in theaters.
Big Eyes is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 105 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
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