DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski • PRO: Scott Alexander, Tim Burton, Lynette Howell, Larry Karaszewski • DOP: Bruno Delbonnel • ED: JC Bond • DES: Rick Heinrichs • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter
As unfair as this is on the man, the best Tim Burton films are often the least Burtonesqueone. While the cartoonish Gothic shtick has certainly served him well – most obviously in his early career – many would surely agree it has led to rather diminishing returns in more recent times. He’s clearly a talented, individual director, but one who dances perilously close to self-parody on occasion. That’s not even mentioning the something of an over-reliance on certain collaborators, no matter how ill-suited they are to the task at hand.
That’s why it’s refreshing on those rare occasions when he breaks out of his dominant mode of expression – I for one definitely would not object to another film in the vein of Ed Wood, or even Big Fish. On the surface, it looks as if Big Eyes should capably serve that purpose – heck, it doesn’t even feature Johnny Depp! Excepting the absence of the earlier film’s star, the similarities to the delightful Ed Wood are fairly striking – they’re both based on bizarre real-life stories, they’re both period pieces, and they even share screenwriters (Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander). But while Ed Wood was an atypical Tim Burton film in a refreshing way, Big Eyes instead comes across as disappointingly anonymous.
The stranger-than-fiction tale at the film’s centre is that of Margaret and Walter Keane, played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz respectively. As the film opens, Margaret is leaving her first husband, and she moves to bohemian San Francisco with her daughter Jane. Margaret wants to be an artist, and her particular skill is the creation of portraits of wide-eyed ‘waifs’. While trying to sell the portraits one day, she meets charming amateur artist Walter. The two hit it off, and are soon married (a decision aided by a legal letter from husband number one). Walter is dedicated to striking it big with his art, but while holding an ‘exhibition’ in a jazz bar’s corridor, he discovers that it’s actually Margaret’s art that is making the biggest impression. One thing leads to another, and he manages to convince Margaret he should take credit for the paintings, because ‘women’s art doesn’t sell’. Soon, the waifs are a huge commercial hit. Margaret covertly toils away at creating the paintings while Walter takes credit, but it’s a secret that starts eating away at her.
Big Eyes’ evocation of the 1950s and 60s is a peculiar mix of pleasant and bland – which, to be honest, sums up the film as a whole. Everything is kept ticking over without grave offense being caused, but it consistently fails to really explore the material in a satisfying or surprising way. Take the relationship between Frank and Margaret. There’s an interesting dynamic of domination and submission, but Burton and the writers never tease the nuances out, relying instead on the broadest of brush strokes.
The only obvious DNA Big Eyes shares with sections of Tim Burton’s filmography – barring a very weak Danny Elfman score – are the big–eyed waifs. Margaret Keane’s style must have influenced the director’s animated work in particular, subconsciously or otherwise. In this case, though, the film as a whole suffers due to a lack of authorial signature. There’s one or two well handled sequences where the Keane style seeps into the real world with the aid of some imaginatively creepy effects work. In fact, other compositions in the film are sometimes inspired by the wider world of mid-century pop art in quite witty ways (a Warhol reference during a supermarket reference is not subtle, but still serves as a neat throwaway visual gag). Those are the rare moments when some of the film’s otherwise confused themes and underwhelming visual identity are operating on roughly the same page, and one wishes the rest of the film operated as effectively.
One of the film’s major problems is that it boasts a great cast, but a script that does not offer them anything in the way of meaty material. Amy Adams acquits herself well enough in what is easily the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional role. Waltz gives it his all, but cannot possibly elevate a character that is written as a crude caricature. Walter Keane is portrayed as a transparently manipulative, selfish and domineering con artist – albeit with a rougish charm. While it may be somewhat true to life (it goes without saying I am not in a position to make that assessment), it’s a point made sufficiently early on, and the writers’ disdain for him only increases as the film progresses to the point of pettiness. As a result, Keane becomes more and more of a one-note character, and no amount of Waltz’s talent can save Walter as he transforms into a pantomime antagonist. At least Waltz has plenty of opportunity to chew the scenery. Spare a thought for Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp, playing an arrogant gallery owner and snooty art critic respectively – two already crude stock types, written in an even cruder way.
Buried somewhere in Big Eyes is a debate about the nature of art and entertainment; the conflict between elitism and populism; an ode to authorship; an exploration of mid-century gender politics. The story itself is so straight-up odd that it cannot help but be strangely compelling, not least the farcical legal proceedings that brought the core conflict to something of a close (and easily the dramatic and comedic highlight here). Big Eyes, though, is not a film that explores any of that in anything more than a perfunctory, mildly entertaining way. Tim Burton films often suffer from a surplus of character – Big Eyes could have used some of the overflow.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Big Eyes is released 26th December.