Big Eyes

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday December 25, 2014

Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams star in 'Big Eyes'
Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams star in 'Big Eyes'  (Source:The Weinstein Company)

"Big Eyes", the latest film by Tim Burton, dramatizes the life of painter Margaret Keane, who made her name painting portraits of small children outfitted with massive, anime-movie-sized eyes. She caught the attention of Andy Warhol and the entire American public as she did it.

Unfortunately, her husband Walter made his name on the very same paintings first -- by passing them off as his own -- leading to a marital showdown worthy of such a cinematic adaptation. Burton's interest in Keane's painting seems obvious: At once crassly elegant and commercially successful, her work is caught forever between art and kitsch. That's something the director of "Batman Returns," "Beetlejuice," and "Ed Wood" knows all about: Burton is Keane.

Amy Adams plays Margaret, contrasting a hurt visage with an unflappable smile throughout. She's like the subject of one of her paintings: Damaged, but soldiering forth. The narrative, written by the screenwriters who penned "Ed Wood" for Burton and taken from Keane's actual history, sees her abused in a litany of ways. Walter (played by Christoph Waltz), locks her up in the attic, forcing her to paint work for him to sign and sell. Later on, he's vetting her for inspirational anecdotes that he can repeat when promoting the works on television. He even turns Keane against her own daughter, forcing her to hide the plagiaristic truth even from the young one. The situations are so ludicrously presented (they're said to be entirely accurate to the true story) that they take on a metaphorical potency: Keane locked up in the attic like a personal secret never revealed. She's Bertha Mason with a paintbrush.

But Burton's never been the type of filmmaker to aim for quiet, subtextual nuance. He's a sketch artist, one who made his name by taking strange narratives -- the bildungsroman at the heart of "Pee-Wee," the suburban apocalypse of "Edward Scissorhands," the vampiric sex-comedy of "Dark Shadows" -- and making them stranger still, via gothic visual designs. Yet there's nothing in "Big Eyes" for him to kink up, just a domestic drama turned courtroom drama fueled by gendered oppression. And while Burton does block the film suitably -- always emphasizing Walter's oversized actions over Margaret's quiet stoicism, much as the public did -- he fails to find a way to 'take over' the material. This is the rare Burton film so lacking in kink that you can't tell, at first look, that it's a Burton film. The only thing truly weird here is Waltz's over-engorged performance.

When Burton's actors are stretching further than Burton himself, it's a problem. He's never been a thinker, but rather, a gothic expressionist. A painter, in fact: He never writes scripts, and injects himself into his films visually. "Big Eyes," with it's popping primary colors and repressed-housewife narrative, fits most closely into the "woman's picture" genre. It's comparable to Sirk melodramas -- but those were psychologically invested, and that's something Burton's films have never been.

"Big Eyes" is ostensibly a film about Margaret Keane's brain, and the effects Walter had on it. But the movie refuses to enter her. Burton draws big eyes over living characters in a few bravura set pieces, in lieu of taking an actual psychological interest. Such a small flourish, but it's the only way Burton puts his signature on the movie. The Margaret Keane biopic never finds its own inspired streak, because it gives Burton nothing to paint.


Related Story

Big Eyes

Read More »