At first glance, Tim Burton’s latest, Big Eyes, appears to be a departure from the filmmaker’s general proclivities towards the grotesque and fantastical. Scissor-handed youths, murderous barbers, and obnoxious ghouls are nowhere to be found in this deceptively straightforward biopic of kitsch-master Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret. A cursory glance at the film might lead one to question just what Burton thinks he’s doing in the realm of realism.
Granted, this isn’t the first time that Burton’s examined life in the “real world.” His 1994 biopic Ed Wood offered a look at the life and work of the cult Z-grade director of films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space. But even then, the subject’s attraction to topics that spawned films widely considered to be among the worst of all time left viewers wondering if he was any less of an outlier than, say, Pee-Wee.
Wood’s analogue in this film, Margaret, (Amy Adams) appears to be comparatively well-adjusted, if a bit naive. The recently divorced painter’s lack of awareness of “reefer” feels a bit far-fetched, but it also appears to fit the time period, and it certainly helps to shape the character. Her naivety becomes a major factor in the story as soon as she meets her soon-to-be-husband (and fellow painter), Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). He recognizes her gullibility, and he takes advantage of it to marry her in a period of time that feels short but believable (in part due to her single motherhood).
A rushed marriage is soon to be the least of her problems. Though they both paint, her bug-eyed little girls prove to be more marketable than his street scenes. Unfortunately for her, he happens to be the only one present when her work is discovered at a local nightclub, and he takes credit for the piece. She bristles at his thievery, but she trusts his assertion that they have no choice but to preserve the facade. Her girlfriend DeeAnn’s (Krysten Ritter) warnings of his infidelity appear to disturb the artist mildly, but she generally feels too dazzled by Walter to be concerned with his shortcomings.
She’s hardly the only one in the film who gets duped. People around the world find themselves moved by her large-eyed young women, despite the naysaying of snobs such as gallery owner Ruben (Jason Schwartzman) and the New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp). Though the two men insist that Margaret’s paintings are little more than a shallow, manipulative fad (and even the most ignorant viewer will struggle to disagree with them), consumers propel the Keanes to soaring fame and popularity.
It’s in the images themselves that Burton’s most obvious connection to the material can be found. Like a good deal of his oeuvre, the paintings are simplistic and maudlin, yet undeniably effective in drawing out viewers’ emotions. Though his films may not have the formal audacity of work by more daring and innovative directors, they tend to do a good job of tugging on heartstrings, and one suspects that Burton is perfectly okay with this. While Ruben and Canaday’s skepticism does not appear to be directly challenged by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (working with Burton for the first time since Ed Wood), since the most vehement response to their words comes from the antagonist Walter, they certainly portray Margaret sympathetically, and the viewer bristles when her work is brusquely dismissed.
But it’s in the approach to Keane’s story that the film feels most thoroughly Burtonian. Waltz and Schwartzman have both had their most prominent roles working with directors who set their films in worlds that resemble ours, but operate with a cartoonish whimsicality (Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, respectively), and Big Eyes is no different in its logic. Between a miraculously prevented fork-stabbing, a ludicrous trial scene, and many other sequences, Burton’s film clearly establishes itself as a fantasy (albeit one that bears many similarities to reality). Big Eyes may not contain overt fairy tale elements the way many of his other films do, but it’s no closer to depicting the real world than Sarah Jessica Parker’s head is to being grafted onto a chihuahua’s body.
The sooner the viewer accepts this, the sooner they can enjoy the film’s pleasures, which are considerable. The colorful shots are worth marveling at on their own, and Elfman’s stirring score sets the emotional tone well. Though Adams doesn’t get to show off her considerable range as Margaret, she excels (as she has in The Master and others) at revealing the inner turmoil of a woman being victimized by a charming man. There aren’t many actors better at embodying a charismatic villain than Waltz, and Walter fits his strengths well.
Furthermore, it’s in these two characters that the fairy tale elements so present in Burton’s other films most obviously reveal themselves. Margaret is an infallible victim, devoid of obvious sins and left to play on our sympathies. Walter is an irredeemable villain, too greedy and narcissistic to possibly be worthy of pity. Neither is portrayed with the slightest hint of subtlety, but the characters fit well within the overall approach of Big Eyes. The one-dimensional characterization certainly has its flaws, most obviously in the glossing over of Margaret’s numerology, but it generally works with the rest of the film’s logic.
It’s a logic that seems to have guided Burton for much of his career, as well as one that fit with Keane’s artistic approach: creations don’t have to be artistic masterpieces to be effective, particularly when they fit a given moment. Her paintings captivated audiences, regardless of what critics had to say, and Burton’s films provide aesthetic pleasures, realism or moral complexity be damned. Big Eyes dares viewers to approach it with Canaday’s cynicism, but anyone who does so will miss out on its merits.