Review: BIG EYES

You can keep staring at Tim Burton’s Eyes, but you’ll not find much there.

As Oscar season winds down, I’ve been privy to some really excellent films and performances; one might even say I’ve been spoiled. It’s not really fair to place Tim Burton’s latest directorial effort Big Eyes among those; in fact, I’m a little confused that the film wasn’t dumped off in January. That is not to say the film is completely without its charms; it’s just not all that good.

Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) née Hawkins, her second husband Walter, and the greatest art swindle to ever grace the pages of the Times. Single mom Margaret sells portraits of children on the boardwalk to subsidize her income and care for her young daughter, but when she meets the charismatic Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), she learns her true worth and that of her kitschy art. When Walter begins passing off Margaret’s paintings as his own, the two commit a fraud that garners them millions but leaves Mrs. Keane sinking deeper into the shadows. The lie takes on a life of its own as Walter even convinces himself that he is the real talent in the family, and when a movement is created, Margaret must tell the truth, even if it costs her everything.

Burton fills the screen with his uniquely impressive production/shot design. Rich pastels deteriorate into washed tones as Margaret loses grip on her identity. A frequent special effect of the “big eyes” appearing on other characters is interesting but not entirely necessary: one of those Burtonesque idiosyncrasies that is all flash and no substance. Storyboards must have consisted of “great ideas” which do not exactly fit in the scope of the story, but they all look really cool. Colleen Atwood’s costume design partners well with the subject paintings, and the hair/makeup design is patented corpse-white skin with shockingly diverse hair.

All that bravura, however, cannot save the chaotic script you’d think would mask at least an interesting narrative. Based on an unbelievable “true” story, the film cannot seem to decide if it wants to be a biopic or a character study. The decision to have Danny Huston’s beat reporter Dick Nolan narrate the action adds to the confusing and jumbled narrative, a decision I can only surmise is meant to personalize the tale without speaking from Margaret’s perspective, thereby hoping to come off as unbiased – unsuccessfully, I might add. Obviously, Burton’s version of Walter Keane is a louse, sucking all energy from those around him to become the most interesting man in the room. The script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszeweski draws a line in the sand when it comes to which side the truth lies: Margaret Keane is a saint, muddied only by her serpentine husband who uses a patriarchal society to infuse his will. But all of this potential leaves much untold: what exactly were Walter’s motives? Did he target an unwed mother, or choose her paintings? There are times in the film that seem to answer these questions but then contradict these ideas in other scenes.

And what of our characters? Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, and Krysten Ritter appear in cameos, caricatures really, each offering basic exposition for the audience and not much else. Stamp comes the closest to playing at an actual person, but by the time the credits roll, I never felt I understood anyone’s truth. This movie could have been a 22-minute sitcom episode, or a short Perry Mason special – a show frequently referenced in the film. Maybe the Keanes and all the people who navigated their circle were this simple, but I have to believe it was the lazy writing and not an overabundance of two-dimensional people populating the 1960s.

Continuing on this downward spiral, let me point to the performances — that frankly can only be described a “phoned-in.” Adams and Waltz are so much better than this material, and they seem to know it. Waltz clowns around abundantly as Keane; there’s no subtlety here, and Adams’ waif-like approach to her kitten-eyed lines offer little to the idea that these people would ever be a couple. It is possible this is Burton’s failure as a director to produce a satirical biopic. If that was in fact his intention, he did not bother to let the supporting cast know. Only Schwartzman – who wets his chops on this kind of silliness in the highly successful Wes Anderson style – Adams, and Waltz stick to the satire. What is left is an idea of the thing – a film incomplete.

This is more of the downward spiral of a once promising career; Burton continues down the slippery slope to obscurity, accompanied by a derivative Danny Elfman score that’s really just more of the same. It’s not that Burton’s latest are exactly bad – Big Eyes included – it’s just that we’ve come to expect more. Much, much more. If he wanted to direct a satirical biopic, or even a sensationalized version of a tabloid story, it all begins in the script. And here, Burton was let down, but as the director, it’s his job to know that. You wear the hat, you get all the praise; you must then accept the blame.

All that being said, I must compliment the producers for the budget: completing a work this aesthetically pleasing – a period piece, no less – for a budget of around ten million in this day of $300 million plus comic book explosion extravaganzas should be commended. All of the problems began at the script level — and continued into the directing-the actor-phase, inexplicably – but visually, it was mostly a success. Here’s hoping this budgetary conservatism continues…with slightly better writing.

Grade: C

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