If an auteur is a filmmaker with a distinct and unique point of view —his or her films are immediately identifiable— then director Tim Burton unquestionably qualifies. A Burton Film, with its usually playfully macabre style and tone, can be spotted a mile away. But this has been his problem for over a decade; Burton’s films have mostly curdled into self-parody, given a few exceptions (for the sake of argument, we’ll give you “Big Fish”). His work is often aesthetically sumptuous but otherwise either emotionally slight or just vacant. So Burton teaming up with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski —the writers behind “Ed Wood,” his last unambiguously terrific movie — for his latest “Big Eyes,” an adult drama (and awards contender), was a promising sign. But as an appalling tale of an abusive husband who steals credit for his wife’s artwork and becomies a national sensation in the process, “Big Eyes” undermines the plight of its own protagonist with an utterly glib and goofy tone.
Amy Adams stars as painter Margaret Keane, eventually a famous artist known for her childlike but strange “big eye” paintings but at the onset a single mother who has packed up from the suburbs and left her previous husband. Struggling to get by in San Francisco and unable to get steady work, Margaret paints portraits on the streets and eventually has the misfortune of meeting Walter (Christoph Waltz), a seemingly amiable but unsuccessful artist. A wannabe and a bon vivant, Walter woos Margaret posthaste and then begins to “manage” her career. Ambitious and not-so-subtly unscrupulous, he negotiates to hang both their works in tacky locales (Margaret isn’t assertive enough to argue) and soon becomes enamored by the way her eccentric and odd art garners oohs and ahhs of enthusiastic attention. Walter quickly reveals himself to be a hustling weasel, takes credit for her work and generally shows his true colors as a despicable indvidual. Gaslighting his wife and preying on her insecurities, the conniving Walter manipulates into her into believing his actions are to the financial benefit of the family and her daughter. Hey, we’re both Keane family members! It’s cool!
The picture from there is concerned with Margaret’s struggle to reclaim her identity and rightful authorship and to get out from under Walter’s thumb. Based on the true story of Margaret Keane (now 87 years old), “Big Eyes” would perhaps become an story of callous exploitation, capitulation and spousal abuse in the hands of another filmmaker. While the movie is all those things, in Burton’s hands it’s mostly just another hyper-stylized cartoon, treated like another frothy trifle of a story more interested in garish period style than anything resembling genuine human emotion. Adams does her best to invest the character of Margaret with some genuine pathos, but she can only do so much to fight out under the layers of bouffant hairdos, garishly colorful costumes and affected lighting Burton slathers all over her to come out the other end resembling a human being (the movie does flirt with the idea that she’s complicit in her self-betrayal, but to little convincing effect).
The always-hammy Christoph Waltz (who could very much use an acting intervention) was born to play the rancid Walter Keane. Waltz’s own affected mannerisms —usually a collection of fey tics, oily over-enunciation and the faux-insincerity usually capped off with his Cheshire Cat grin— are in full effect once again and are almost a parody of a routine style that has earned the actor two Academy Awards. There’s nothing subtle about Waltz’s performance, greased to the hilt with Brylcreem, but there’s also absolutely nothing subtle about a contemporary Tim Burton film, so the viscosity is at least playing within the same frame. But if Walter is supposed to be anything other than a one-dimensional reptile, neither Burton are Waltz demonstrate any interest in a deeper or different exploration.
There’s absolutely nothing delightful about the “Big Eyes” story —a female artist is repressed by her swindler husband and aggressively works her fears when she questions his motives—but you’d hardly know it from Burton’s film. It’s as if the director is incapable of constructing an even remotely serious drama without a trivializing sheen on top. And since Burton treats the severity of this story like another caricature with occasional dark shadows, one wonders what his interest in telling the story lies.
As usual, the tipoff is the visual aesthetics and production design. Burton seems more interested in capturing the cartoony kitsch of 1950s suburbia, 1960s San Francisco, modernist swank California and verdant Hawaii (the film’s four main locations) than he is in the actual human interiors of his story.
Already soulless, “Big Eyes” reeks of compromise. A banal and tacked on voice-over by Danny Huston (who plays a journalist in the film enabling Walter’s early fraudulent success) is totally unnecessary, spoonfeeding previously established information. And it’s unclear how much Interscope paid to stuff the anachronistic Lana Del Rey song in the middle of the movie —this segment grinds the picture to a halt and acts as a three minute commercial for her song— but whether or not it’s the most honest creative choice in the world or not, it’s a huge misfire and one that has no business in this movie.
Not helping the film’s frivolous, cloying tone any is Danny Elfman’s insipid score, which tries to add his trademark whimsical, oh-so-delightful notes everywhere but only hastens your ability to take the picture too seriously or actually have any kind of real emotional connection to anyone or anything. Campy and cartoonish, Burton’s “Big Eyes” is not the return to form many were hoping for. It is another phony and hollow piece of sugary kitschploitation masquerading under the guise of an “important true story” that places a nearly grotesque premium on style over any traces over substance. [D+]