Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Terrence Stamp, Jason Schwartzmann, Jon Polito
Written for the screen by: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Directed by: Tim Burton
Metacritic Score: 62
IMDb Score: 7.0
Winner of One Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical Comedy (Amy Adams). Nominated for 2 Golden Globes including Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical Comedy (Christoph Waltz) and Best Original Song
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Tim Burton is popular for his films that deal with death and the occult, namely Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, etc. But Burton also has an eye for the cult, as in the things that have cult followings, such as his filmmaking classic Ed Wood. At first, it seemed weird that he was going to direct a story about Margaret Keane, the artist who created the paintings with the big eyed children.
Then, you watch it and realize how perfect he was for the source material.
Margaret (Adams) is a woman who recently left her abusive husband to California with her daughter. She meets Walter (Waltz), a local artist who strives to put his pieces in Galleries. When he puts his and his wife’s paintings on display, he pretends that he did Margaret’s paintings. The movie chronicles this and everything while Walter keeps the con going.
The subject of the film: an artist whose work is not only undermined by the artistic crowd, but by her own loved one, seems to be ripe for a Lifetime movie. Yet, it’s the actors and, more importantly, the vision of its director that pushes it to be more than its source material.
Now, the actual source material is interesting in itself: the actual people of Margaret and Walter Keane are weirdly fascinating in a “people like this actually exist?” sort of way. These characters, a mousey, talented artist and an overly theatric sales person disguised as one, are some of the best presented characters in a Tim Burton movie since Big Fish.
Of course, having two fantastic actors like Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz play these characters is nothing but a boon. Lesser actors, or actors without the range that these two clearly possess, would turn these two characters into literal caricatures with little complexity.
The movie, overall, belongs to Christoph Waltz, with a performance that is incredibly entertaining as it is hilariously disingenuous. The character itself is a horribly hidden web of lies and exaggerations, which in most movies would be an annoying person to be around for the runtime of the film. Waltz, however, makes his hamminess and over the top bravado almost endearing in a scummy sort of way.
Adams’ performance is very quiet and nuanced; something that takes a bit of time to see how difficult the role was. Her performance is that of a quiet submissive person and that of an artist who, despite being incredibly talented, has brought more suffering to her than anything else. Adams’ layered performance makes her less of a victimization figure and more of a person who, when her comeuppance finally happens, you really root for this character.
Finally, Tim Burton’s direction is very good as well, which more skews to Big Fish more than it goes to Ed Wood, but has elements of both. The movie is surprisingly colorful, even in its darker and more morose tones, but it comes out as a sort of romanticized, theatric movie that has a wonderfully kitchy palette.
Here’s the thing about Burton movies: the secret of what makes a fantastic Burton movie is the supporting cast. He’s always going to get fantastic actors to play any kind of lead roles (or just Johnny Depp), but it’s the ancillary characters that really help make the movie a whole experience. Characters played by Bill Murray, Martin Landau, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Walken all provide everything from small, but memorable cameos to fantastic supporting performances.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is lacking in this film. The actors who play minor roles, which are Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp, Danny Huston and Jon Polito, don’t really offer much into the film except what feels like just Burton-esque characters playing into the film. They either fell out-of-place with Waltz and Adams or they just feel like characters added in just to make you remember: “You’re watching a Tim Burton movie”.
The sole exception is Schwartzmann, who plays a very minor character that really plays off as the person who represents how insane the “Big Eyes” popularity is. Each scene he’s in offers a refreshing taste of irony and sarcasm that provides the viewer with a look on the outside of this craze.
There are messages that seem to rear its head that never really gets answered: does the movie want you to celebrate Margaret Keane’s work or deplore the tactics used of Walter to make them so popular? Does the film celebrate Margaret as a legitimate artist who received unjust backlash because of her cruel, unloving husband and his unflinching need to be popular? Does the film think that Margaret’s work is not really art, but just popularized pictures?
The thing is, the movie points these out throughout the film, but doesn’t stick to a definitive message or viewpoint. Some would say that this is Burton’s way of saying “You decide what it is, like art!” but it becomes really muddled when you see a good amount of the film point out how much respected artists don’t like Keane’s work (or is it that they don’t like Walter). Should we feel the same way? Does the director feel the same way?
(Burton has said that he is a fan of Margaret Keane’s work, which is why he made the film. But the fact that the film doesn’t really show that is a questionable problem.)
It’s funny, what makes Big Eyes work is the fact that it feels like Tim Burton battling with himself to not be a Tim Burton film. When he steps out of that “comfort zone,” it works very well, with its colorful set pieces and its great performances by the leads of the film. It’s when Burton goes back to his own bag of tricks: the darkly theatric characters, the weirdness of some situations; that’s when the film goes downhill.
Overall, the film is a good film with strong performances that Burton fans should see. Most importantly, this might be the best movie since Big Fish that non Burton fans might actually enjoy.
3.5/5 – Strong performances by Adams and Waltz lift a film that works well when Burton decides not to be Burton for the right reasons.
The Wiz Says #26