Long before Tim Burton dissolved into self parody, cranking out two-hundred-million dollar Disney rides created solely as an excuse to have best-bud Johnny Depp and life-partner Helena Bonham Carter play dress-up, he was actually a proficient director capable of creating nuanced dramas without any Hot-Topic theatrics. One such film was 1994’s Ed Wood, a brilliant, subtle character piece about the infamous director of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Twenty years and countless large-scale fluff pieces later, Burton has finally decided to again try his hand at the serious prestige film with his latest, Big Eyes.
Set in the 1950s, the film recounts the true story of timid Southern housewife Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who, after finally leaving her oppressive husband with her young daughter Jane, sets out for San Francisco to try and achieve her dream of becoming an artist. Margaret paints portraits, mostly of Jane, which mostly strive for realism save for one magical feature: the titular oversized doe eyes. While practicing her craft an an arts fair, Margaret catches the eye of Frank Ulbrich (Cristoph Waltz) , a wannabe portrait artist and raconteur. After a whirlwind romance, Frank wows Margaret with his faux sophistication and promises her a life of financial stability if she agrees to marry him. Margaret takes him up on the proposal and the two shack up in a studio to paint together.
After Frank manages to convince a local cafe owner into displaying some of the couple’s paintings, he discovers that Margaret’s “Big Eyes” are selling like hotcakes while his landscapes fall by the wayside. Seeking to capitalize on this momentum, the duplicitous hustler begins taking credit for Margaret’s work. As sales increase, the “Big Eyes” become a full blown phenomenon, sweeping first the art world, then the nation at large. Meanwhile, simmering tensions come to the surface as Margaret wrestles with the fact that all of her success is being falsely attributed to her husband. Though she tacitly goes along with Frank’s lies because of the value of his business acumen, Margaret is confronted with her demons every day as the “Big Eyes” proliferate the American Zeitgeist. Eventually this tension culminates in a history court date that rocks the pop-art scene to its very foundation.
While its laudable that Tim Burton has decided to actually try for once, Big Eyes itself is remarkably unremarkable. Burton and Ed Wood screenwriter Larry Karaszewski attempt to wring all the drama they possibly can from this inconsequential story, but the fact remains that, in the end, Margaret Keane’s “Big Eyes” series is, for the most part, hackneyed, maudlin kitsch that has aged very poorly. There’s a reason these paintings were mass produced and stuck in grocery store displays. In fact, the idea that Keane received the big biopic treatment before some of the 20th century’s real art-world luminaries is equal parts irritating and depressing. Amy Adams certainly imbues Margaret with likable pluck, but the character is so weak-willed and submissive that her otherwise charming notes often register as somewhat cloying despite the best of intentions. Conversely, Waltz’s turn as Frank is painfully one-note—a perma-grinning jackal one top-hat away from a vaudevillian mustache-twirler. Not once are we ever surprised that he would double-cross his wife so cravenly. His performance telegraphs this deceit from the very start.
The cinematography is fine, the music is fine, and the structure is too. Things move along mercifully briskly and rarely get bogged down in pointless hagiography like so many similar pictures do. Indeed, Burton is able to craft a film that at moments even feels important—before we remember that, of course, it isn’t. At one point late in the run-time, a stuffy gallerist played by Jason Schwartzman finds out that Margaret Keane has been awarded credit for her work at last. “Who would ever want credit?” He wonders. I ended up empathizing with this sentiment far more than Burton wanted me to.
The Weinstein Company
Currently in theaters.
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