When it comes to a Tim Burton movie, I’m an eternal optimist. Despite being disappointed much as of late by the eccentric artist (perhaps far too much), I still walk into every new screening from the director with dogged hope still kindling. His unmistakably unique voice of arch emotion and oft-binary colors is so personable that it can always excuse Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or Alice in Wonderland. Maybe even Dark Shadows.
Thus when entering Big Eyes, Burton’s first biopic since Ed Wood, and his first attempt of at least approximating realism since stretches of Big Fish, I still kept my eyes as full of aspiration as those charmingly garish paintings by Margaret Keane. Indeed, this is an artist who’s frequently been accused of painting with the same kitschy brush that Burton himself would later master. And I’m happy to report that through her, Burton finally has a new muse for one of his best films in the last decade (the other being Sweeney Todd).
With Big Eyes, Burton is also reuniting with off-kilter biopic scripters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon), and the result feels almost therapeutic—a beneficial success from his recent trial separation with Johnny Depp. In spite of even playing from the classical Harvey Weinstein biopic list of standards for this TWC production, Burton still covers that canvas with a new kind of oil, retaining his consistent appreciation for gonzo showmanship in tone and performance. Big Eyes also strips away much of the expected framing, allowing its dueling character portrait to be as inexplicably eye-catching as the paintings at the epicenter of this 1950s gender landmine over matrimonial artistic custody.
The two parties involved in this battle are Margaret and Walter Keane (Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, respectively). Both struggling artists when they meet on the side of a San Francisco thoroughfare, Walter often laments that he has the soul of a poet, but showcases the slick boisterousness of a used car salesman. However, Margaret is the one with a real talent, having drawn her daughter Jane from her first failed marriage dozens of times in portraits reliant on eyeballs the size of flying saucers. All charm and gesticulations, Walter sweeps the new divorcé off her feet and into his marriage bed. It’s a quick fix for Margaret who needs a father for Jane (court orders), and besides they can start selling their art together.
Of course, for moviegoers of a certain age, the name “Keane” is ubiquitous with the first mass-marketed artist whose work could be as easily found in a certain kind of gallery as it could in the supermarket aisle sold in bulk. The critic circles and art world snobs denounced this lazy populism that made the Keanes rich, but Margaret had far more reason to close her eyes in disdain: Walter took all the credit for her work. At first, seemingly doing it only to close a deal on selling one of her paintings at a nightclub, Walter soon is insisting that nobody would buy a woman’s art. He promises his wife a mansion instead of an apartment and a life of security for her daughter, and much of it comes true. But in the end, it all seems to fuel the ego of a man who views the marriage as less a partnership than that of a lowly clerk and her egomaniacal overseer.
It took decades and a fantastically messy divorce case to finally prove that Margaret was the artist behind these relics of 1960s gothic camp, but Big Eyes breezes through this narrative in a 105 minutes, keeping the mood as disarmingly deft as one of Walter Keane’s talk show yarns about helping the children of the world. In fact, his sort of dominance over his wife for most of the running time pervades the whole tone of the film too.
Burton is never one to wallow in agony and misery, lest it be that of a singing barber, and his biopic about women suppression in the 1950s is likewise offbeat enough to be a pleasant romp through the wilderness of rampant sexism. Avoiding much of the earnest stiltedness associated with its subject matter on film, Big Eyes is thereby refreshingly off-balance. One senses the film is as amused at the ridiculousness of Walter Keane and this story as the audience is. However, there is something to be said that even though it was Margaret Keane who created the art, not to mention sold her life story rights to this film, it’s still ever Walter who controls the tempo and mood of the picture.
Playing Walter with his patented touch of quixotic charm and sudden bursts of sleaze, Christoph Waltz envelopes the movie with his echoing sneers and celebrations of arrogance. On some level, Walter might be simply a failed artist vicariously living out his dreams through his wife’s talent, but he never comes off as anything short of a buffoon with a nasty mean streak under all those smiles. His ability to flip between those two wavelengths remarkably never feels cartoonish, but unfortunately is somewhat the movie’s main gallery attraction.
Amy Adams, meanwhile, turns in a perfectly fine performance as a woman consistently left with a series of bad choices that takes her years to overcome. With an admirable Tennessee twang, Adams gives a far more internalized and deliberate performance than her scenery chewing in last year’s American Hustle, but while the portrait she and Burton sketch feels authentic, its own self-admitted passivity is always co-opted by the domineering Waltz.
Intriguingly though, Burton (who’s always been an actor’s director) lets both performers enjoy the total spotlight. With only a few dreamlike flourishes in the middle of the picture, Big Eyes retains little of the iconography associated with its director. However, his trademark preference for constantly bemused composition or broadly offbeat performances is always underneath the surface. One of the best shots is early in the film where he depicts picture perfect 1950s suburbia as a hellscape that must be evaded at all costs.
Perhaps the best element of the film is its sympathy for oddballs, be they put upon housewife artists or even their loudmouth promoters. Indeed, there is something much worse than Walter Keane in Big Eyes: artistic authoritarians. While most of the film displays admirable restraint, Terrence Stamp sparingly appears as legendary New York Times art critic John Canaday, and every emergence is heralded as another trip inside The Twilight Zone. As the apparent moral authority on what is good art (i.e. not the Keanes), he brings the same ominous foreboding to his scenery invasions once only reserved for General Zod, dressing Walter Keane down to his face at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Walter might be a fraud, but at least he’s trying! Every time Stamp is on screen, it’s as if the boogeyman has come for the souls of all wayward artists.
Big Eyes likely could have used more of this stranger-than-fiction tale embracing this even stranger side. Burton’s previous (and superior) biopic was a love letter to kitschiness and mediocrity—Ed Wood delighted in its self-aware camp. Big Eyes is far more restrained, but as a result it also feels slighter. Perhaps after feeding so many creative impulses on nine-figure misfires (at least critically), Burton felt the need to tighten up. And for the first time in years, it is well worth your time. Still, he need not be so worried about the Canaday monsters of the world. For starters, Big Eyes has a peculiarly wide vision in need of glimpsing.