“Big Eyes” is an unsuccessful film, but unsuccessful in an interesting way. The underlying story, which is the true story of an artist whose work was falsely claimed by her husband, is quite interesting. But thre film is handled in such a wrongheaded fashion from the get-go that it’s baffling how this film was made in this form.
Let’s get this out of the way: Tim Burton has been coasting on the memories of his good films for quite a while. When was the last time you saw a Tim Burton film that you could say was genuinely good? For me, it was “Sweeney Todd”, and that was 7 years ago. Since then he’s made “Alice in Wonderland”, which grows more mediocre in memory when I think about it, and “Dark Shadows”, which has an awful third act which nearly ruins a half-way decent film. The animated “Frankenweenie” remains unseen by me. Prior to “Todd”, I’d have to go back to 1994’s “Ed Wood”, his most critically acclaimed and, arguably best film. Between “Wood” in 1994 and “Todd” in 2007, we pretty much have a big bucket of crap. “Mars Attacks!” was a star-studded failed satire with minimal laughs. “Sleepy Hollow” was decent, but it was then followed up by a wrongheaded “Planet of the Apes” remake. Then comes “Big Fish”, which is a well-liked film but to me is one of the worst films of all time for its morally reprehensible message that lies are always better than truth. A more pro-religion film I can’t think of, and I’ve seen both “God’s Not dead” and “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” this year. Perhaps even worse is that I know the author of the novel upon which “Big Fish” was adapted hates the film version, and that the film completely changes the message of his book. “Big Fish” was followed by another wrongheaded remake, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Corpse Bride”, in which Burton failed to recapture the magic of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Tim Burton is respected as an auteur, but he may not deserve such respect. If you are a fan of Burton, I want you to consider what your favorite Burton film is. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that you are thinking of either “Beetlejuice”, “Edward Scissorhands”, or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. You have to go back to 1988 or 1990 for the former two films. As for “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, well, Tim Burton didn’t direct it. He also didn’t write it. He came up with the bare bones of the story and came up with some of the character design, and that’s pretty much it. Henry Selick directed it, and is often shafted when it comes to credit because Burton’s name is above the title of the film. Honestly, though, “Nightmare” should be considered a credit to Selick, not to Burton. So, Burton’s good will is largely because of two films 25 years ago. Of the 17 films he has directed, maybe 5 can be considered great. Quality aside, however, he remains to have an ardent fanbase.
This is all important to go over when discussing “Big Eyes”, because this latest film reeks of anger. Burton’s recent films have largely been financial hits. “Dark Shadows” was considered a bomb due to a large budget and low domestic returns but probably made a profit worldwide. Still, critics have pretty much made the same assessments of his career that I have. Hell, even his hardcore fans have gotten tired of seeing the same old visual style decorating Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and scored to Danny Elfman. “Big Eyes” still has an Elfman score, but it’s noticeably absent of the usual Burton visual leitmotifs and the aforementioned actors. In fact, “Big Eyes” in many ways feels like a big middle finger to his critics.
Consider the character of John Canaday, played by Terrence Stamp. Canaday, a real person, is an art critic for the New York Times who hates the paintings of the Big Eyed children which Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) paints and Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) takes credit for. He considers them lowbrow and kitsch, and doesn’t think their popularity is indicative of any inherent quality. The film’s argument, and Walter’s, is that it doesn’t matter what the critics think, that haters are just jealous (we see two characters at an art show claim to hate the paintings, only to produce posters of copycat paintings and selling them), and that if something is popular it is automatically good. Gee, I wonder if Burton is trying to send a message to his critics, especially using a film which does what his critics have wanted him to do, which is step outside of the box he has been in for the last four live action films.
Burton’s not entirely stepping out of his comfort zone, though. As I mentioned, Danny Elfman does the score and, as much as I love Elfman, the use of score in this film is atrocious. I don’t mean the score itself, I mean that Burton scores too many scenes, especially ones that would have played more powerfully without music. Seriously, for a while, especially the first act, it feels like the score won’t shut the hell up. Also, unlike most of Elfman’s best stuff, none of the score is memorable. Don’t even get me started on the Lana Del Ray title song for the movie, which has the most on the nose lyrics I’ve heard for a theme song in some time.
In addition, the film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The last film these guys wrote for Burton was “Ed Wood”, and that film was Burton’s most critically acclaimed work and, arguably, his best. If you’re going to break away from your last four films, three of which were critically derided, it seems a safe bet to go back to the guys who wrote your best film. Alexander & Karaszewski are largely known for writing really good biopics, from “Wood” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “Man on the Moon” about Andy Kaufman. They are less famous for writing both “Problem Child” films, the film “Screwed”, and some other disposable kids’ movies like the “That Darn Cat” remake. My point is that these guys are often very good, and if you’ve ever heard them on an audio commentary you know they’d probably be very cool to hang out with, but they don’t always hit a home run. “Big Eyes” feels like a decent first draft that needed two more passes. I don’t know how much fault lies with the original screenplay and how much lies with Burton, but the film is often shallow, brings up its themes in a very on the nose fashion, and is tonally inconsistent. I say it is shallow because we’re left with questions about character feelings and motivations. The film tries to make us feel that the bond between Margaret and her daughter Jane (played at different ages by Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur) is strong and that Margaret’s prime concern is her daughter, but the film doesn’t give us much interplay between the two of them to sell that bond and concern. We see Margaret pack up her daughter and leave her first husband, we see the daughter pose for paintings while bored, and we see the daughter upset that she can’t see her mother’s painting studio or upset that she can’t hang out with friends. That’s about it. There are no really emotional or even expositional scenes between just the two of them. We barely get the semblance of a relationship.
Also speaking of shallow, Margaret meets Walter and they seemingly get married in about a week. The film presents this as a purely practical matter, as Margaret is a single mother in the 1950s and her husband sues for custody of Jane. Being married helps her retain custody, fine. So why does Walter offer to marry her? This is before Walter concocts the scheme to take credit for Margaret’s work, and indeed there’s a scene subsequent to their marriage where Walter tries to give the paintings to an art gallery while rightfully attributing them to his wife. That scene indicates that forgery was not his motivation from the get-go, and the film also lets us know through Margaret’s friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter, who looks like she belongs in one of Burton’s “normal” films) that Walter is a notorious lothario who sleeps around with every woman in the art scene. So why settle down with Margaret. The film gives us no indication he’s smitten in love with her. I don’t know if that is the script’s fault, Burton’s fault, or Waltz’s fault. Waltz’s performance in general is off, as it feels like Waltz thought he was in a broad comedy even in dramatic scenes. Whether that fault is Waltz’s alone or Burton’s for not properly directing his actor I do not know, but Burton has let Johnny Depp run amok in his films with Depp-isms that I wouldn’t put it past him (Burton) to just let an actor do his thing even if it sabotages his film as a whole.
I mentioned the themes being brought up in a very explicit fashion. Aside from the anti-critic stuff, the main attempted theme here is that of the hardship of women to succeed in a man’s world. Upon leaving her first husband, Margaret applies for a job at a furniture company (she gets the job and we see her painting Humpty Dumpty on cribs). The interviewer asks her what her husband thinks about her wanting to enter the workforce, and then looks at her with derision when she explains that she is separated from her husband. Later, Margaret goes to confession, despite not being Catholic. She tells the priest she is upset for having lied to her daughter, having told her that Walter is making the paintings and merely attempting her old style. The priest simply tells her to trust her husband, as he knows what is right for the family. Yup, I get it writers, the subjugation of women by men (and organized religion). Perhaps you could have been more clever and subtle? Walter’s whole excuse for continuing to claim authorship of the paintings is that no one would take a female artist seriously, so this story is rather perfect if one wanted to illustrate the systematic difficulties an even talented woman has to make something of herself in a system hostile to her. Why doesn’t the film do that better, and not through awkward, on-the-nose dialogue.
Margaret Keane herself, at least as portrayed in the film, is not the best champion of feminism one could hope for. Amy Adams is usually very good in everything, but in this film she plays Keane as a cross between Naomi Watt’s gee-whiz character from (most of) “Mulholland Drive”, and the put-upon woman of a Lifetime TV movie. Hell, much of this film feels like Tim Burton’s version of a Lifetime movie, especially one awkward, slasher-like scene of Walter throwing lit matches at Margaret and Jane, causing them to lock themselves in the work room and have Walter throw the matches through the keyhole. But back to Margaret: while talented (if you like the Big Eye paintings themselves, which I do), is dumb as bricks. For part of the film she is taken with numerology, apparently after seeing a cheap book about it in the grocery store. Later, a man to her at an art gallery about her work, and she babbles on about numerology, ruining a potential sale and making the man view her as a fool, which at that moment she is. Later on, she becomes a Jehovah’s Witness, and THAT is the event that finally gives her the strength to stand up to Walter. You may not think being a Jehovah’s Witness is stupid in and of itself, but I ask you what religion continues to try really hard to recruit members when they believe only 144,000 people will be allowed into Heaven?
It doesn’t help that the film clearly wants us to see Walter as an abusive husband who keeps Margaret from leaving him out of fear and emotional abuse, when the film doesn’t really show us that. Prior to the match-lighting scene, we mostly see Walter rationalize and cajole, and maybe lie about how much trouble they’d be in if she came out with the truth because it would leave them both liable to charges of fraud. He half-jokingly also says he’d have her “Whacked” while they eat dinner at an Italian restaurant, but the scene plays it as the idle, joking threat of a desperate man and not at all dangerous or ominous or something Margaret has to actually be concerned about. This, combined with the fact that Margaret has already shown herself capable of leaving one husband (for reasons the film doesn’t tell us or show us), make her just seem naïve and dumb for staying with him for 10 years.
I also doesn’t help that the film leads us to believe that Walter is at least partially right, and that her work would not have become popular without his name and personality. Margaret does namecheck Georgia O’Keefe as a female artists who was successful at the time, so this neutralizes the argument that a woman couldn’t make it in the art world at the time (and partially undercuts the film’s attempts at feminism) and places Margaret’s lack of success on Margaret. An earlier scene, prior to the fame, where Margaret wants to charge $2.00 for sketches but allows herself to be haggled to $1.00, combined with the numerology fiasco, show that she’s not good at selling herself, or anything. The Walter of the film as played by Waltz seems a bit too overtly a B.S artist to be good at what he does, but no doubt the real Walter was a much better conman. So while this film might have been interesting from a Marxist perspective of a man making money from no work off the back of a silent laborer, that’s not quite an accurate criticism of Walter as he does bring something to the table, his adept conning, without which the paintings may not have been popular on their merit alone. Margaret even admits at trial that this was likely the case. So Margaret, as a protagonist, is dumb, naïve, weak, and even with talent could not have succeeded without a man. This is the film’s feminist hero?
Perhaps if the film had stuck to one tone it may have been more successful. The early scenes of the film are so arch and a stylized version of the 1950s (like one from a Coca-Cola print ad rather than real life) that for a while I thought Burton was making the entire film in the style of a 50s film itself. I was reminded of the film “Far from Heaven” from 2002, which was filmed in the style of a 1950s Douglas Sirk film. Burton’s choice to make suburban America looks like pastels threw up on it (remember the small town in “Scissorhands”) doesn’t help. The film abandons this style, however, and switches back and forth between broad comedy, earnest “Norma Rae” drama, that one slasher-esque scene, and at the end a courtroom film. It was as if Burton changed his mind every day about what kind of movie he wanted to make, and edited all the scenes together hoping the final product would feel like the same movie. It doesn’t.
Why did this film end up like this? My guess is that Burton didn’t want to make this movie, and didn’t care much about it. I’m told Burton once commissioned a portrait by the real Margaret Keane of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie, so clearly he likes her work, but liking someone’s work and wanting to film their life story is not the same thing. Since I’m already on record as saying I think Burton only made “Big Fish” because he was interested in staging the visuals and didn’t give two shits about the story he was telling, I think this other “Big” movie was made for similarly cynical reasons. Burton wanted to shut his critics up and show that he could make a movie without Depp or Carter (they’ve since broken up, so the latter will likely not show up in any more, much like Lisa Marie was in all of Burton’s films until they broke up) or his usual whimsically goth-ish visuals. Hell, he’s even gotten good reviews again for it. This was Burton’s spite movie.
So, we have a film with performances that don’t fit, an awkwardly shifting tone, one-the-nose messages that don’t quite work with the way the protagonist is written and portrayed, a script that needed a few more drafts, and a score that that is overused through many scenes, undercutting their dramatic power. As I watched the film, I did not hate it, and was never bored. I find this film to be an interesting and uneven failure. The underlying story is indeed interesting. The fact that such a con could be perpetuated for so long is fascinating, as is the fact that posters and photographic facsimiles of paintings being used to generate revenue from people who can’t afford to buy expensive paintings was a practice largely started by Walter Keane. The examination of High Art vs. Low Art and the role of critics in society might have provided for an interesting film with a different script and a less angry director, but at least the film dips its toe into those waters. “Big Eyes” isn’t a bad film, it’s just a muddled one. C+