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.
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.
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.