Tim Burton's name is on the credits but Big Eyes doesn't feel at all like the visually eccentric, gothic-tinged productions we normally expect from the offbeat director. Oh, there are some "Burton-esque" moments, like a vacation in Hawaii that's suffused in pastels and hyper-real colors. The "big eyes" of the title, the central feature of the Keane paintings, are in keeping with Burton's sensibilities but he doesn't overuse them. Aside from those elements, this is a straightforward and mature film with little in the way of overt weirdness. And neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter is anywhere to be found.
Big Eyes opens in 1958 with picture perfect period detail and a voiceover by Danny Huston, who sounds eerily like his father, John. Our intrepid lead character, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), has jumped in the car with her daughter, Jane, to flee a failing marriage. She relocates to San Francisco where circumstances bring her together with flamboyant landscape painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). Margaret is also an artist, although all of her creations are variations on a theme: waifs with exaggeratedly large eyes. After a whirlwind courtship, Margaret and Walter are married and that's when the trouble starts. After working out a deal with a local nightclub owner, Walter is able to display his and Margaret's paintings. When hers sell and his don't, he begins passing off her art as his own. When she learns what he's doing, she's hurt but reluctantly agrees to promote the sham. The "big eyes" paintings become hugely popular but, despite all the money, Margaret is increasingly unhappy, feeling as if something important has been stolen from her. For his part, Walter becomes unpredictable, especially when he has been drinking.
In addition to being a bio-pic, Big Eyes has strong themes about the importance of the act of creation to an artist and the tug-of-war between art and commerce in popular media. The ideas related to these subjects are incorporated in such a way that, although not subtly presented, they blend into the narrative flow. Plagiarism, it is said, is the greatest sin that can be committed against an artist. Big Eyes illustrates that it's no less traumatic when the artist is complicit in the act. From the moment when Walter claims Margaret's art as his own, she feels as if she has lost her identity. She becomes morose and withdrawn. It's not that she desires wealth (which she has) or fame (which has been ceded to her husband), but she wants recognition for her creations. They are her babies. Worse, to keep the gravy train rolling, Walter forces her to labor day and night churning out "big eyes" paintings. The soul goes out of her work.
The face of art belongs to Terence Stamp, who plays high minded art critic John Canaday, a man cut from the same cloth as Lindsay Duncan's theater appraiser in Birdman. Canaday dismisses the "big eyes" paintings as the work of a hack and decries their popularity. When Walter objects, claiming that people love them, Canaday rebuts that the adulation of the masses doesn't make them art. Further highlighting the art/commerce divide is the modern art gallery across the street from where Walter sets up shop. After refusing to show the "big eyes" paintings, the owner of that venue (played with perfect snootiness by Jason Schwartzman), is forced to watch as his new neighbors' popularity explodes. Burton pokes fun at those whose artistic views are "pure" but he also hints that his sympathies lie with them.
This is probably a very personal tale for Burton, who has always had an uncertain relationship with Hollywood. Many of his films have been financially successful but his pet projects have often been ignored and unloved. For every Batman, it seems, there's a Frankenweenie. Ask the director which means more to him, and there's no doubt about his answer. Ask the studios which they prefer and the response will be different. Although dissimilar in many ways, Big Eyes and Birdman share a core theme that reunites Keaton and Burton 25 years later.
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are solid but this isn't the best recent performance for either. That may be unfair considering how many awards and nominations they have received but the truth is that no actor not named Streep can be nominated for everything they do and just because their work here isn't Oscar worthy doesn't mean it isn't effective. Stirring portrayals emerge through small parts, in particular Danny Huston as a '60s era newspaper gossip columnist and Stamp. They bring color to supporting, clichéd roles.
Like all "based on" tales, Big Eyes takes some liberties with the facts but the result works dramatically. The ending satisfies in a way that only a courtroom scene can and Waltz plays it with just enough buffoonery to inject humor into the proceedings. For the most part, Big Eyes works because of its restraint - something rarely claimed about one of Burton's cinematic offspring.
© 2014 James Berardinelli