Now that’s more like it, Mr. Burton.
Big Eyes is a return to a subdued style from Tim Burton that’s been missing for over a decade. While still operating in a somewhat heightened reality, the film isn’t overwhelmed by CGI and obvious green screens as far as the eye can see. Instead Burton gives us San Francisco and Hawaii in the 1960s, with blue oceans that pop and green grass that fill up the screen from left-to-right. This isn’t some tired plane of existence Burton attempts to bring us to, but a very real place with a very real story. It’s as personal a film he’s made since Ed Wood, and while it falls short of that mark it remains a visually arresting film with two very different but still solid performances.
Our story follows a recently-separated Margaret (Amy Adams) and her daughter, who arrive in San Francisco to make a fresh start. Margaret is a talented painter who meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) during a street fair, and is immediately taken by him. A wedding follows soon after, and shortly after that Walter finds a jazz club that will allow him to sell paintings created by both him and his wife. His paintings are of Parisian streets, but it turns out hers are the bigger draws: young girls with exaggerated “big eyes” in a sad state. And this is where the film takes a turn into bizarre, but sadly realistic territory.
Walter takes credit for the paintings (she signs with her married name), telling his wife that at first it was in the moment, but then convinces her that no one will ever take a woman’s art seriously. Two hundred dollars a night soon balloons into a city-wide phenomenon, and then worldwide. Galleries, postcards, posters, etc. All of this while Margaret works in complete secret from her friends and daughter, having to sit back and watch her husband take all the credit. Until one final revelation is made from a husband full of secrets, and she stands up for herself and her art.
Adams’ shy performance contrasts brilliantly off that of Waltz’s, whose initial charisma gets etched away as the film moves on to that of sleaze. The story itself is of where lying can get us if we let the lie become a part of our lives. One small untruth outside a restroom hallway ends up leading to a Pandora’s Box full of riches and fame and an inevitable downfall that comes with it. Burton surrounds this scenario with that aforementioned rich cinematography and a story that for the most part focuses on Adams and Waltz alone, with the occasional appearance by worthy character actors (Krysten Ritter as Margaret’s friend, Jon Polito as a club owner, and Danny Huston, sounding more and more like his father each day as the film’s narrator/journalist).
But the movie is ultimately Burton’s, and one he had to make at this point in his career. While there is no doubt that commercial success has not evaded the director in recent years, a sense of creative stagnation had arrived, and Big Eyes is the grenade that blows up the hollow works of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. It’s a very personal film, as Burton explains in a letter sent out to Landmark Theaters for the film’s release: “A lot of people point out (and they’re correct in doing so) that you can see a great deal of her influence in my own visual style. There’s something so undeniably haunting, and yet tongue-in-cheek, about those saucer-eyed waifs in her portraits.”
The film strains a bit in the final act, trying to say something about criticism that doesn’t totally translate (Terence Stamp’s brooding critic Canady is easily interchangeable with Birdman’s Tabitha), an abrupt religious conversion, and a final courtroom battle that veers a little too close to absurd. However, I can’t help shake the supermarket sequence in which Margaret keeps seeing “big eyes” on the faces of everyone she sees. It’s a rare moment of special effects in the film, but used so effectively. With Big Eyes, Burton remembers to rely not on CGI but on performance and story alone to drive and support the action on-screen. We can only hope this is the bridge back to making classic films once again.