It’s difficult to find a director that has transcended simple form to become his own genre more than Tim Burton. Handed increasingly ballooning budgets over his 30 year career in features, he’s created worlds of fairy tales to Northern California instilled with the same off-kilter, Gilliam-like caricature quality that makes them all instantly attributable to him, regardless of whether they are drenched in bright 50s pastels or red accented black and white. Having returned to his roots in 2012 with Frankenweenie, a feature length expansion of the 1984 short film that would make him famous, Burton mounts his smallest film since 1994s Ed Wood with Big Eyes.
Part domestic horror/thriller, part showbiz satire, and part biopic, Big Eyes, while enjoyable, is strange in construction and not entirely successful for mostly one reason: it frequently shifts the focus off the main character, artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), to her husband, wannabe artist Walter (Christoph Waltz).
Big Eyes opens in a Northern California neighbourhood in the middle of the 1950s, one that wouldn’t look out of place in Burton’s much loved 1990 film Edward Scissorhands. Groomed to look like its been ripped straight from the pages of a 1950s display home catalogue and plonked on an empty square of dirt under the bright California sun. It’s all white picket fences, pastel coloured houses, and large card, a fantastic piece of nostalgia except for one thing: it feels somewhat menacing.
Pushed to the side in one of the houses, in between perfectly straight pictures on white walls that match the carpets is an old wooden box of acrylic paints, the only object with a hint of age in amongst the smooth vinyl sheen.
They’re being hastily packed up by Margaret (Amy Adams), as she frantically leaves her husband with her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) “long before it was the fashionable thing to do”, in the words of a somewhat superfluous narrator (journalist Dick Nolan, played by Danny Huston). Swapping her white picket fence for a shoebox apartment in San Francisco where her paints are no longer shoved in the corner, but spill all over the table, she’s working as a furniture decorator and doing charcoal portraits at a weekend market when she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Walter is a real estate mogul and hobby artist who sells paintings of European street scenes, but is a charismatic smooth talker, telling Margaret of being the type of destitute Parisian student found in novels. They embark on a whirlwind romance, and marry soon after.
Walter, however, proves to be an ambitious con artist. He starts selling his and Margaret’s paintings at a local bar, initially as their individual work, before becoming enraged with jealousy when buyers only show interest in the oversized sad eyes in Margaret’s paintings. He then sells them as his own, much to her (very understandable) displeasure, before eventually becoming fearful of him, continuing to produce them for nearly ten years, locked in a room, endlessly painting, as Walter appears on talk shows, wooing buyers.
Margaret’s work is swept up in a mass market art movement that would be echoed by Andy Warhol old a handful of years later (in fact, the film begins with a quote from Warhol praising Keane’s work). Her children, all telling a story of heartbreak in their eyes, a personal outlet for Margaret’s pain, are made into postcards and posters, sold at petrol stations and chemists around the US, a piece of her replicated and sold to customers for a small amount of money, Walter manipulating the motivation behind the style to sell more prints.
It’s here that Big Eyes becomes puzzling in its narrative viewpoint. Margaret does, of course, eventually get the hundreds of works attributed to her in a court case that culminated with a painting battle. When that moment does come, however, the focus isn’t on Margaret, but Walter.
This is mainly the fault of the writing and direction (and also Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz schtick; who seems to be flown in from, again, another film entirely, pantomiming all over the place; but that’s a discussion for another time) both having a different film in mind, a divide that reveals itself early on. Adams is playing a vulernability that she hasn’t in years, harking back to her best and earliest mainstream attention work in Junebug. She’s open and unguarded, her eyes like stained glass windows – bright, but telling a story of pain and passion.
Burton’s visuals play excellently opposite her. His San Francisco looms large. Buildings lean into streets, towering like theme park stores onto those walking below. The sky glows gumball blue, ready to burst into a sticky mess at any moment. Houses are expansive glass castles, shimmering as light hits the corners, so large you get lost in the space. It’s a world of sinister beauty, and in the middle of it all, dwarfed by the brightness and and colour and sheer size, is Margaret. Burton has nailed the design of his film, popping off the screen in pastel colours that have never looked so menacing. Margaret and Walter are married outside a Hawaiian hotel that looks like a pike and white frosted cake, sickly sweet. Canvases increase in size as the popularity of the paintings increase, and Margaret becomes more trapped. It’s vivid and expansive, typical stock-standard biopic visuals elevated by a clear garishly dream-like concept Burton was aiming for. Bruno Delbonnel’s camera is almost Doctor Seuss-like, widescreen and angled at the ceiling. People are viewed as they would through carnival mirrors, making the world look slightly off-kilter and cartoonish.The sweetness becomes sinister as it has in many a Burton film before, working to great effect.
However, Scott Alexander and Larry Kraszewski (Ed Wood) ’s script is half-baked, lacking the same commitment, imagination and shared vision to truly explore the true dramatic potential, and offer a proper study of Margaret. As a long time fan of Margaret’s work, Burton obviously has an avid investment in the story, handling the film well, but his direction doesn’t meld well with the screenplay, where Alexander and Kraszewski can never quite get a handle on what they’re aiming for, flip-flopping between melodrama with your classic climactic fit of madness house fire, tender drama, and courtroom comedy. Margaret’s narrative viewpoint is continually pushed aside in favour of Walter’s, significant details such as her heavy drinking, relationship with her daughter, and exploration of her past abandoned for another conversation between Walter and a pretentious art dealer played by Jason Schwartzman, or a voiceover from Huston’s character, who never interacts with Margaret.
The ending court case, which, on paper, while just a confirmation of Walter being a manipulative con artist, was a very big moment for Margaret and her finally having control over her creations again (and a mammoth Oscar moment to boot), is over in about half the time it should have been, before being quickly pushed aside to hastily end the film. It’s a final entry in a long, long list of times that Margaret’s perspective is often sacrificed for Walter’s. It’s a puzzling choice that substantially limits the success of the film. When all is said and done, and Margaret has got what is rightfully hers, there are still questions of “but why did she do it in the first place?” Of course, we do know – she was trapped in an abusive, manipulative relationship – but at the same time, we’re given a troubling lack of Margaret’s perspective to result in a film actually about her. Instead, it feels like an artwork bought in a chemist shop, quickly produced and impersonal.