Published Dec 22, 2014It's easy for Tim Burton fans to hold high hopes for Big Eyes, his latest and most promising work in years. On one hand, it's a welcome departure from the Disneyfied blockbusters Burton has been releasing to IMAX screens for the last several years, choosing instead to tell a story that seems to actually mean something to him. Big Eyes is the real life story of closeted artist Margaret Keane; most don't know her name, yet have likely encountered via her highly-reproduced canvasses, containing eerie images of innocent, wide-eyed children, often alone in a nefariously Burtonesque landscape.
To portray the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Keane exaggerated the windows to the soul in scale; making her subjects' eyes so uniquely big, her paintings are instantly recognizable. Though Burton's own brand of surrealism often extends far beyond the magnification of characters' eyes, it's not hard to imagine Burton as a like-minded fan of Keane's, perhaps even influenced by her expressionistically offbeat depictions.
The Keane story is a fascinating one. After spending most of the 1950s as a trapped housewife, one night Keane ran off with her daughter, Jane, to San Francisco. There she began selling her big-eyed illustrations of Jane, and offering similar portraits of the children of passers-by. After meeting a smooth-talking fellow painter named Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz), Margaret is charmed into marrying again, this time with her new sense of independence in tow. Sadly, Walter proves to not be the artist Margaret took him for, rather a very talented shyster who successfully starts a mass hysteria over her artwork, while taking all the credit.
It's a rich story that is at once about Keane's personal struggle, as well as pre-feminist oppression and the society that so readily accepted Walter as the family genius. Given that Walter Keane was likewise a genius at commercialization, Big Eyes also tells the tale of the first mass art reproduction racket, where Walter printed Margaret's art onto posters and postcards, to be made available to those uninterested in investing hundreds on canvasses. To many in the art world resentful of the idea of cheapening paintings for mass consumption, popularity did not equate to quality, and Margaret's work was rejected as serious art. Before Andy Warhol, the Keanes were, perhaps, the first to incite debate over the concept and relevance of pop art.
There's nothing uninteresting about the story and it's one that seems perfect for Burton's sensibilities. But even more exciting than the fact that Burton is returning to a subject of substance, is the pivotal footnote that Big Eyes is written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a screenwriting duo proven to be trusted with the biopic genre. They won numerous awards for their screenplay, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, but far more to the point, they ingeniously penned the Edward D. Wood Jr. story as Ed Wood, one of Tim Burton's last masterpieces. And so with the collaborative reunion came hope that perhaps Burton, through the platform of Margaret Keane, could again achieve a film worthy of his glory years. Not to be.
Big Eyes is by no means a bad movie. In fact, it's quite good. The story is excellent as is its execution, for the most part. The ever-radiant Amy Adams is perfect as the stifled housewife-turned repressed artist, hungry for the credit due to her, and Waltz is both hysterical and frightening as her slimy better half. Even Burton is on his A-game, lending the material a respectfully controlled telling, without descending too deeply into his trademark weird. With gorgeous eye-catching frames, which themselves resemble colour-bursting canvasses, Burton skilfully allows the story to belong to Margaret, allowing himself only one foray into showy surrealism.
So why is this film, so chockfull of positive attributes, difficult to recommend to Burton fans? It's a tough question, but one that ultimately concerns the film's third act. When dealing in biopic, a story is only as good as its historical foundation. And where Keane's ending is quite satisfying, on account of the situation's predictability, as well as the fact that the film's resolution is significantly less captivating than the conflict itself, cinematically, Big Eyes ends on a less than triumphant note.
It feels unfairly judgmental to fault a film for being anything less than brilliant, but nevertheless, it's because Big Eyes succeeds at cutting so close to the mark that makes it all the more disappointing when it inevitably doesn't measure up to the director's and screenwriters' previous triumphs. Big Eyes is enjoyable, layered and definitely worth seeing, but sadly, if you're unable to catch the film, you haven't missed out on the Burton smash fans have been pining for.