It’s difficult to imagine what Tim Burton was trying to accomplish with his latest effort, Big Eyes. Tonally, it’s the most confounding movie of the year, pinging wildly between drama, surrealism and farce. Even the actors seem confused, with each adopting a different approach to their character. From the stilted dialogue to the awkward pacing, everything about this movie feels scattershot. Big Eyes is more than an ambitious disappointment… it’s just plain bad.
The premise of Big Eyes is ripe with dramatic and comic possibilities. Margaret (Amy Adams) is a desperate housewife on the run with her young daughter in the early 1950s. Though the shallow script never fleshes out her character, it seems likely she’s been down this road before. Perhaps that’s why her daughter always looks so sad. We’ll never know because depth and motivation aren’t a concern for screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. In fact, Margaret’s daughter is so inconsequential and quiet that we aren’t entirely certain if she’s real or part of Margaret’s imagination. Only after Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) speaks to her are we sure that she actually exists.
Waltz plays Keane like a carnival hustler; all leering smiles and wild gesticulations. While passing himself off as a starving artist for spare change in the park, Keane notices Margaret peddling her paintings of the now (in)famous saucer-eyed children. Regardless of how you feel about Margaret Keane’s paintings, there is no denying their creepy allure. Faster than you can say, “Tragic decision,” Margaret and Keane are married and living the good life with their conveniently invisible daughter. Margaret keeps cranking out the paintings and, through a series of wacky misunderstandings, Keane sells one of them by taking credit for her work. Given Keane’s flair for salesmanship and Margaret’s flair for being a doormat, they mutually agree that he should continue taking credit for her paintings. What follows can best be described as an American nightmare; Margaret’s “hobo children” ooze their way into the collective subconscious, while Keane becomes a tabloid sensation.
Burton seems to understand the furtive subtext in Big Eyes, but he’s baffled as to how to weave it into his story. Margaret, like most independent-minded women of that era, harbors a deep restlessness and resentment from her years spent as a second-class citizen. “I was a daughter, and then a wife, and then a mother,” she observes. These roles were limiting, yes, but they also provided a warm security blanket. Rather than digging into the female angst of that era, raising the dramatic and thematic stakes, Burton uses it as a cursory plot point. It’s a pattern we see over and over again… instead of showing us what makes these characters tick, we get melodramatic outbursts and stilted dialogue to keep the plot moving. Clearly, Burton’s quirky sensibilities are a mismatch for this seriocomic material.
The lack of a coherent theme permeates every aspect of the film, most notably, the tone. At times, Burton treats Big Eyes like a serious drama. We get glimpses into the psychological toll Margaret pays for maintaining this elaborate ruse, but mostly, she’s superficially portrayed as a weak-minded woman caught under the spell of a talented conman. Amy Adams takes the material deadly serious, gearing her performance to these fleeting dramatic elements of the plot.
Waltz, on the other hand, is starring in a wacky farce about an unscrupulous flimflam man. As usual, he’s compulsively watchable, but his performance as Walter clashes with Adams’ realistic approach, making her seem dull and lifeless in comparison. It’s ironic that Burton’s victimization of his cinematic Margaret mirrors her ‘real life’ fate; she toils in the shadows while the flashier Walter takes center stage.
Visually, Burton plays it pretty straight. The costumes, art direction and musical score create an acceptable facsimile of ‘50s Americana, but it never evokes the parallels to our modern-era lust for gossip and sensationalism that Burton was clearly aiming for. The radical shifts in tone also make for some erratic pacing. We speed through the opening act as if Burton were skimming down a plot-point checklist, only to hit a laborious midsection that’s determined to document all of Walter’s duplicitous triumphs. Finally, the ending degenerates into a courtroom fiasco that isn’t worthy of a mid-season replacement sitcom.
Despite a hit or miss filmography, Burton has always been assured as a director. Here, he feels lost with Big Eyes, as if he never had a unified creative vision for his script. The result is an awkward farce that’s short on laughs, inept at drama, and bereft of insight. Burton’s talent is undeniable, but this material is clearly out of his comfort zone.