There’s something a tonal challenge at the heart of Big Eyes, the biopic of Margaret and Walter Keane. Penned by the Ed Wood team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the movie unites them again with Tim Burton, and they adopt a not dissimilar tone to their earlier collaboration. And to a degree, that’s a relief. It seems unfair to label the majority of biopics as conventional, but that’s entirely what they are. Lives tend to fit the three act structure perfectly well, and few filmmakers are willing to deviate from that, instead relying on quality performances to lift an otherwise faithful but rarely brilliant telling of someone’s story. Take Walk The Line as a perfect example.
Ed Wood was bold, though. There, Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton took someone regarded in certain quarters as the worst filmmaker of all time, and injected him with positivity and a self-belief that few were expecting. The pay-off was not just how entertaining Ed Wood remains as a film, but how much more impactful it makes the sadder moments of the movie. It remains, for my money, Tim Burton’s best film.
Big Eyes is nowhere near as successful, however. Its subject is fascinating. Margaret Keane’s paintings proved a huge success in the 1950s and 1960s, but it took a long time for her to get the credit for them. Instead, her husband, Walter, passed them off as his own, and soared to a world of celebrity as a consequence. All the while, the Keanes, for differing reasons, kept the secret going, until Margaret eventually took matters legal.
The film, which runs to an economic – and that’s no complaint – 106 minutes, races through this story, a pace that’s at first just a little jarring. Alexander and Karaszewski have opted to tell a lot of the Keanes’ story at speed, rather than a little of it in a lot of detail, and it’s not entirely a successful choice. It means, for instance, that characters outside of the main pair arrive and leave the picture without even threatening to be two dimensional. Take, for instance Terence Stamp’s terrifying art critic (and Big Eyes has one or two asides about the state and quality of criticism), or Jason Schwartzman’s gallery owner. Their screen time of both is best calculated in seconds rather than minutes, as the film needs to gallop on to the next part of the story.
Burton’s camera absorbs the detail, as you might expect, and in particular, he savours the art. The paintings of Margaret Keane are given due service here, even if the wonderfully over-emphasised eyes become used elsewhere in the film, to far lesser effect. Not for the first time too, he’s on stronger ground when the film takes its lighter turns. Given what’s gone before, it’s another odd, but not ineffective, choice when the eventual court case seems played more for comedy than drama. But it’s not a decision without merit, in a film that doesn’t convincingly settle on a voice in which to tell its story.
The surprise though is that neither lead performance in Big Eyes works as well as you may expect. The story of Margaret and Walter Keane is one of a dominant husband and a wife kept in the shadows. The performances of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz stay firmly between those lines, and Waltz in particular gives a turn akin to an exaggerated twist on his better work in Water For Elephants. He dominates the film, but the sinister edge that’s found in his work for Quentin Tarantino, for example, is lacking here. We know he’s not a good man by his actions, but Waltz’s overegging of the part means you never really feel that from the man himself.
Furthermore, the volume of Waltz’s performances doesn’t help with what Amy Adams has to work with. She has to contain her work here, in line with the part she’s playing, but it feels like we don’t get enough time with her by herself to fully flesh out what makes Margaret Keane and her work so special. It’s not a bad performance by Adams at all. Yet go back to that Walk The Line example: in that film, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon really helped lift an otherwise decent film. Adams and Waltz don’t really do that.
There’s still much to like, and much to admire, about Big Eyes. But it does feel like an opportunity not fully grasped, and it feels as if the screenplay never fully gets to grips with the tone and feel of the story it wants to put across. On the upside, few will sit through what remains a perfectly functional movie, and not want to hunt out more about Margaret Keane when the credits roll. As such, Big Eyes is a success, just a surprisingly small one.
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