REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

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At one time director Tim Burton was on top of the world and his ghoulishly gothic style seemed fresh and unique. But recently his career has been marred by several flops and people seem to be growing tired of his darker approach and constant Johnny Depp collaborations. Personally I had been off the Burton bandwagon for a while, but his 2012 animated gem “Frankenweenie” won me back a bit. His latest film is “Big Eyes” and Burton is one step closer to having me back in his corner.

“Big Eyes” is a biographical drama that tells the story of American artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter. Margaret (played by Amy Adams) was a talented sketcher and painter whose work came to prominence during the 1950s through the 1960s. It was a time when little thought or consideration was given to “lady art” (as her husband so insensitively puts it in one scene). Her art style was uniquely her own and featured children with big, wide eyes.

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The film begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and moving to San Francisco with her young daughter Jane. We see Margaret as timid and unsure of herself. She finds her one true emotional release in her art. Enter Walter played by the always fascinating Christoph Waltz. He too is an artist and he woos Margaret with his charisma and exotic tales of his time spent in Paris. The vulnerable Margaret, needing a whole filled in her life, marries Walter.

At first their life together is fun and free, but we see the first ripple when Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own work. What followed was a 10 year ruse that saw Walter taking the credit for the paintings while a guilt-ridden Margaret did all of the work behind closed doors. Her naïve and timid personality was no match for Walter’s manipulative and shameless character. In essence he was a snake oil salesman both as an art dealer and a husband. The popularity of the art grew and grew, but behind the scenes a much more personal struggle was taking place.

This is truly a strange and compelling story and I love the way Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tell it. It’s written in a way that allows its two top-tier stars to form these characters through their performances. Interestingly enough Adams and Waltz have two very different approaches. Adams is quiet, serious, and reserved. Waltz is big, energetic, and hyper-charismatic. It may sound like the performances clash, but that’s not the case because they are perfectly in tune with the characters. Margaret is subdued and unassuming. Walter is a showman and a salesman.

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And I tip my hat to Tim Burton for stepping outside of his routine and showing nuance in his filmmaking. A sensibility and thoughtfulness takes the place of his normal macabre style. It’s a much lighter touch yet there are still a number of subtle Burton signatures. Quirky bits a humor shake the tone up a bit and Burton does several things with his camera that hearkens back to some of his earlier films. But overall it’s a refreshing turn from a filmmaker who a short time ago had found himself in a rut.

I can see people having problems with “Big Eyes”. I can see people bothered by the shifts in tone and what they perceive as clashes between the two lead performances. Not me. I was locked into the story from the start, I appreciated the visual representation of the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the performances. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds were first attached to the film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better than Adams and Waltz. Add in a much different Tim Burton approach and you have a very entertaining film that tells a truly surreal story.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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30 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

  1. Burton usually gets in the way of whatever movie he’s directing, and that didn’t seem to happen here. And for that, I very much appreciated it. Good review Keith.

    • Thanks so much Andrew. It truly is a remarkable story and I only knew bits of the true account prior to this film. Most reviews seem to be fairly positive but not overly enthusiastic. This movie really worked for me. I settled in nicely with what Burton was doing and the two lead performances are great. As I mentioned, they are very different performances but they match these two characters so well.

      Definitely see the film. It’s well worth your time.

  2. Big Eyes was a grower for me. Immediately after I saw it I wasn’t on board but the more I thought about it the more I realised how much it affected me. Let’s hope this is the start to a return to form for Burton.

    • I can see it having that effect Abbi. I left the theater very pleased with it, but like you the more I think about it the more I like it.

      I’m with you. I hope this is a return to form. Did you like his last film “Frankenweenie”? I thought it was a nostalgic blast. Prior to it though Burton was making a lot of crap.

  3. Oh wow, Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds would be so terrible! I’m still looking forward to it, in spite of this being one of the two positive reviews I read. At the very least the cinematography in the film looks gorgeous.

    • The cinematography is great. Honestly Sati I’m not sure where the negative reviews are coming from. I thought the film really worked. I did go and look on Rotten Tomatoes and it was at 72%. But most of the positive reviews weren’t overly excited about it.

  4. Hey, glad to hear this was a good one from Burton. I’m intrigued by the cast, so I definitely will give this one a shot, Keith. Have a blessed New Year!

    • As a lukewarm Burton guy I have really enjoyed his last two efforts. This is really unique for him. Aside from a few small touches you wouldn’t notice it was him. Really good film.

      Happy New Years right back at ya! 🙂

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  6. Wonderful to hear (read?) the positive response. I had so much trouble trying to position my argument against this film, as I find that while it’s admirable Burton takes a different tact here, most notably tonally (which I very much appreciated since his last few films have really been things I’ve actively avoided), there came a point in ‘Big Eyes’ where I was thinking that it had no personality to it. Any director could have been attached to it.

    However, as you noted as well here, there are a few things he does with the camera that are very much Burton-esque and it reminded me whose film I had just gone to see. Primarily I saw Big Eyes simply b/c I’d heard it was very unlike Tim Burton. So on that basis I was a little frustrated this film felt as safe as it did. If that makes any sense?

    Performances were universally wonderful. I’m loving Amy Adams more every movie I see her in. And I’m not sure I need to say anything about Christoph Waltz. 🙂

    • You bring up a great point that has left me thinking. Aside from certain camera techniques, there isn’t a lot of Burton’s signatures. Could any filmmaker be attached to this? You know, there’s a good chance they probably could.

  7. Like you I wasn’t big on Burton anymore, but this movie is so enjoyable and has hardly any of the elements you expect from Burton. Like you I also thought the two personalities were brought to the screen perfectly. Waltz’s character is larger than life and he plays it like that. Plus that scene in the court is probably going to be one of the funniest things I will see all year….he went all out for that one. Hilarious.

    • Yes, yes, and yes! I did see it on many Top 10 lists but it made mine. I was sucked it from the start and I give Burton a lot of credit. He’s notorious for drowning his story with his style. That never happens here.

      • Yeah, think they did and to me it shows that some people might let the name Burton color their opinion… Their was so much detail in the movie as well. Loved those exterior shots of San Francisco in the sixties.

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  12. I just bought this film on DVD and am icing to watch it for the first time. I like the sound of Burton being a bit more restrained than usual. And Amy Adams is one of my favourite actresses of late.

      • Just finished it Keith. I liked that it was a mature and quite personal film. The parts that were unusual in the typical style of Burton were well placed within the film. Amy Adams was very nuanced and I loved her approach to the part. Definitely a different kind of movie from Burton.

      • Absolutely. I think Burton resembles Tarantino is the sense that both are so sold out on their own style sometimes to their movie’s detriment. This was a fresh Burton that I really respected.

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