Tim Burton’s latest work, Big Eyes, encompasses many stylistic tropes that have become familiar with the quirky visionary. The hit-or-miss director of classics such as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Corpse Bride as well as recent disappointments Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows tackles a story that encompasses some of the more serious themes he has ever worked with.
Unfortunately, Burton’s reputation for being fantastically unique and distinct can’t lift Big Eyes from uneven tones as well as committing one of film’s deadly sins: being frustratingly predictable, and in a manner which is self-aware, while hoping to lure the moviegoer’s attention to its more ostensible qualities.
Big Eyes tells the story – one based on true events – of Margaret and Walter Keane. One is a painter with a deep connection to their work who doesn’t get the attention they deserve, but doesn’t crave. The other is a poser hell-bent on living the celebrity lifestyle at the expense of devaluing the art. I’ll give you one guess as to who is who.
The strength of Big Eyes comes from its unwavering thematic focus. Themes of gender superiority as well as the emotional depth – or lack thereof – of mass-produced art ring consistent throughout the film’s roughly two hour runtime, as well as the question at the forefront of the Keane controversy: is credibility and respect worth the expense of honesty?
However, while the film’s themes and messages are consistent, the tone, unfortunately, is not. Big Eyes without a doubt is of a more serious and grounded nature than some of the more macabre, morbid plots that we are so accustomed to seeing from Burton. As such, Big Eyes has an issue with foregoing the audience’s attention for some stretches, and that is due to its seemingly bipolar script. At times it is humorous and light in spite of the plot, and then the next moment the dialogue and plot turn frighteningly bleak.
That isn’t always an issue in movies; Tim Burton actually does a rather good job of balancing the two in his more memorable works. But shifts in tone occur so jarringly quick in Big Eyes, and with seemingly no precedent as to why, that it’s almost as if the heart of the film dies for a moments only for the wit and humor to act as defibrillator and soon bring it back to life.
The pace of the film, also inconsistent, is a casualty of this. The film begins rather briskly, bounding about the start of its plot rather transparently until you realize our two main characters are married just as we’ve settled into our seats. And then things begin to slow down, and we begin to see Margaret and Walter for what they really are. The slower moments of the film’s middle act are its strongest, when we get to see what makes Amy Adams (American Hustle, Man of Steel, Enchanted) and Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained) so dynamic and commanding.
That is another trait of Big Eyes that helps to keep the ship somewhat afloat – Adams’ and Waltz’s indelible, addicting performances. Adams is endearing yet quietly powerful as Margaret, with big, telling eyes of her own that can’t see through the con-artistry of her husband. With every line and quivering smile, Adams delivers a thoroughly believable and satisfying performance of someone caught in a web of Stockholm’s Syndrome.
Waltz continues to dazzle and amaze, showing a wide range of emotion but in such a way that you know the true Walter Keane when he is let out of the cage. Waltz has built himself a reputable repertoire with award-winning roles while working with Quentin Tarantino, so it really is no wonder he excels in a story by the equally-tantalizing Burton. The German-Austrian actor continues to be one of the most reliable in Hollywood today, and his career should only break out more when millions of moviegoers see him in the next Bond film in November. Don’t be surprised if his unsympathetic and devilish turn in Big Eyes makes him 3-for-3 with the Academy come Oscar night.
It becomes apparent by the film’s third act that the strength of the film worth paying the price of a ticket for has passed, as the only reason for the film to go on any further seems for it to wrap things up. It does so rather disappointingly, leaving much to be desired at the end of our character’s decade-long journey. Burton hesitates to end the film in a way that elevates its messages about the true value of art, instead opting to end things a tad too soon, leaving the audience unmoved.
There is no real surprise at the resolution of Big Eyes, no sense of plot because it all just seems a bit too ordinary of a note to eventually end on for Mr. Burton. Which, coincidentally, may be the biggest surprise of all.
In a Nutshell
Walter Keane at one point says in Big Eyes that “art should elevate, not pander.” Tim Burton would have done a service to his film had he stuck to that line of dialogue when directing his latest work. Although the film is very much Burton’s, it’s difficult to imagine he prioritized the value of a legitimate ending to his film, and so contradicts the film’s central question: does high art remain high art, when so much focus is on getting people to buy into it?
7 / 10 or a potentially memorable film becomes a last-resort option for the holidays.
Big Eyes is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz
Directed by Tim Burton
Best Actress – Amy Adams
Best Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz
Best Score – Danny Elfman
Best Production Design