"Keane sells paintings, then he sells pictures of the paintings, then he sells postcards of pictures of the paintings."
Though he’s developed a knack for gothic movies with Batman and Beetlejuice, and then bad remakes with Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton at his prime had a knack for displaying intimate human emotions in their most bizarre and innocent forms. So this return to his origins, swapping Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter for newer models, shows extreme promise.
Already enduring one failed marriage, artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) appears to have found happiness as she meets and marries fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) and her paintings of wide eyed figures become popular and bring in money. But she discovers that hubbie has been taking the credit for her work.
Immediately there is a sense of breaking away as far as directorial choices go, Burton chooses to take up a lighter look of the film, straying away from the dark, goth’s fantasy, style. The only Burton film that comes close to this in terms of story is Ed Wood, but that was still dark, literally as it was black and white. Big Eyes is much more colourful and captures the tone of its artistic background quite successfully.
The story itself seems to match Burton as a director, some of his films can be described as art, but then again he clearly has no trouble with mass producing his art, just look at Jack Skellington. The Keane portraits were produced as pictures and prints and it was disputed whether or not something mass produced can be considered true talent, an argument that we’ve seen in Birdman previously.
The two leads both make an impression, particularly Waltz. However this can have repercussions, like all of his roles he’s a charismatic, larger than life character who can be seen lying and cheating his way to the top. That works very well at some points such as drawing the audience and Adams in to his web but at others I felt as if the charisma needed to be pushed aside in order to make way for more human drama. On that basis, the better performance seems to come from Adams, a more ordinary yet more human portrayal of a woman who must choose between blissful suppression or dangerous recognition. The performances also seem to be influenced by the writing mainly, so given a screenplay that examines their relationship on a closer level, Waltz could really deliver, but sadly we just do not see it here.
Though this entire situation is abuse at the end of the day, a man suppressing his wife in order to support his own ego, but it tries to maintain a light tone for more time than necessary. The result is a rather mixed tone and one that seems distorted, we see Amy Adam’s cracking psyche and Waltz’s abusive personality, some caricatures of the art world with other characters, they don’t fit together that well.
But there is a nice personal tone to the story. It reflects Margaret’s own personal struggle as she must draw upon her own inner strength in order to stand up against her husband. The way that these paintings begin to dominate her life and personality, so much so that she begins to see the big eyes in ordinary people and herself, some impressive yet also subtle CGI.
Big Eyes is part biopic, part romance, part portrayal of marriage and art in the 1950s and part period drama. Though all of the fighting tones can make it feel mismatched, it’s a charming film and undoubtedly Burton’s best for a long time.