Tim Burton’s name conveys memories of gothic vistas and moody outsiders. “Big Eyes,” Burton’s lightweight period drama about under-appreciated painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her domineering husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) who took credit for the work, exists firmly outside of that paradigm. While it’s technically exciting to see Burton return to the realm of intimate character studies for the first time since 1994’s “Ed Wood,” the 20 year wait doesn’t justify the hype. A well-intentioned and resolutely minor period drama, “Big Eyes” isn’t exactly a catastrophe, but its bland depiction of a fascinating story perhaps better served by the documentary treatment shows no evidence of the visionary creator behind the camera.
The script (by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski), contains an affecting core rooted in the tragedy of Margaret’s plight, even though it never manages to energize the scenario. Opening in the late 1950’s with a voiceover by Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), the reporter who covered the Keanes before and after the truth came out, “Big Eyes” immediately sets the stage for a triumphant portrait of feminist struggle in a terribly oppressive time: Margaret leaves one unseen husband, taking her young daughter with her, and resettles in Southern California. While holding down a job painting furniture, she sells her bug-eyed creations in the park, where suave fellow painting salesman Walter finds and seduces her. It’s here that the uneven dimension of Burton’s narrative comes to the fore: Waltz’s cartoonish charm strikes an uneven contrast with Adams’ gentle, melancholic delivery, immediately overstating the tale of exploitation about to take place.
Within short order, after attempting to sell both of their paintings at a local bar and finding that only Margaret’s work explodes with interest, he’s passing them off under his own name and insisting to his flabbergasted wife that there’s no turning back. As years pass by, Walter becomes a rich alcoholic reigning over his labored partner with dictatorial glee, while she hovers in his shadow — until one day, when she decides to fight back. These scenes unfold with a largely matter-of-fact quality that makes it difficult to invest in the emotional turmoil in play. Burton can’t seem to figure out if he’s making a Sirkian melodrama or something stranger, and downplays both ingredients, resulting in the most pedestrian drama of his career.
The situation is still compelling for the mysteries in play: Within days of meeting the vulnerable Margaret, Walter proposes marriage to prevent her husband from taking possession of their daughter, but the energetic hustler with the cheshire cat grin clearly has more of an agenda than he’s letting on. As his celebrity increases and the rest of the world takes note, the movie strikes an intriguing contrast between the burgeoning popularity of the paintings in the mainstream media and the disparagement of the art world, which finds them mawkish and one-note — possibly reflecting a similar divide between mainstream and high brow acceptance that Burton himself has experienced over the course of his career. But even as the narrative hints at these possibilities, it never manages to explore them with semblance of depth. Margaret’s thin explanation of her own motives (“the eyes are the windows to the soul”; “art comes from within”) hardly provide enough of an anchor for exploring the work’s intimate qualities, and the movie doesn’t offer much else.
“Big Eyes” works best when fleshing out the ominous qualities lurking behind Walter’s facade. While Margaret’s friend (Krysten Ritter) hints at it early on (“he’s diddled every smock in the art circuit”), the layers of Walter’s con artistry go so deep that Waltz often hijacks the movie with his eerily psychopathic cheer. But once the full mania of his personality is unleashed in the later scenes, the actor throws subtlety to the wind, and so does the movie. A later scene involving Walter confronting a discerning art critic with a fork feels awfully silly; Adams’ fragile delivery, which gradually evolves into forceful determination, gives the movie a more credible source of tension even as it dissipates in the final chapter.
Ultimately, the material lacks the ability to apply her performance to any decisive means. Burton struggles to connect the personal dimension of the story with its ramifications in the high art world. While the movie contains numerous reminders that plenty of upper class snobs disliked the Keanes’ work, it doesn’t explore the ramifications of that dismissal in any meaningful way, only reminding us again and again of Margaret’s miserable state and her husband’s twisted intentions. The strange-but-true finale, in which the former couple was forced to produce dueling paintings in a courtroom, strains from conveying the oddball nature of the story. It’s as if Burton reigned in his own tendencies at the times when the movie needed them most of all.
Fortunately for a movie about creativity, “Big Eyes” offers plenty of agreeable technical polish as it stumbles along. Beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (whose credits include Alexander Sokurov’s “Faust”), “Big Eyes” contains lush imagery to convey the vibrancy of the late fifties and early sixties art world. Burton’s use of Margaret’s paintings in the frame, often in incomplete stages, highlight the all-consuming nature of her work. Danny Elfman’s jumpy score delivers as usual (though a single montage set to a pop song with the lyrics “your big eyes/and your big lies” feels noticeably out of place).
But Burton never strays too far from obvious storytelling that distracts from the curious ingredients in play. “Big Eyes” only really comes to life during a fleeting sequence in which Margaret begins to see elements of her wide-eyed creations in the real world. Unquestionably Burtonesque in its creepiness, the scene suggests the real artist behind the camera struggling to come out, not unlike Margaret’s own difficult journey toward the spotlight.
“Big Eyes” premiered this week at LACMA. It opens in limited release on December 25.