Big Eyes is the movie that Tim Burton has needed to make since at least 2005 when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marked his slow decline into a stifling and formulaic “Tim Burton-y” manner: a wacky Victorian goth style with no substance. There have been good Burton movies since then (I recently rewatched Corpse Bride and was surprised as how well the storytelling held up, as well as how gorgeous and full of life the stop-motion animation is, and Sweeney Todd was good, gory fun), but none to match up with the madcap, storybook zaniness of Beetlejuice, the bittersweet beauty of Edward Scissorhands, or the tragicomedy of Ed Wood. After phoning it in for so long, it was immensely refreshing to see Burton loosen up the reigns and tone down the style that made him famous, but which most have grown tired of.
There are two important things in single mom Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) life: her daughter and her paintings of waif-like children with giant peepers. When she meets Walter (Christoph Waltz, who I never tire of watching), a charming, aspiring landscape painter who inspires her to follow her dreams, she begins to seriously pursue a career as an artist. But when one of her paintings is mistakenly believed to be the work of her husband, Walter decides to run with it and make them both rich by claiming he created the “big eyes,” receiving critical praise and widespread fame while Margaret paints waif after waif in her dark studio.
Big Eyes is not a particularly ambitious movie in scope and for the most part plays it safe. It’s a straightforward enough biopic, but not without Burtonesque touches. I’ve always loved how Tim Burton portrays ’50s and ’60s Americana, and the colour-saturated pastels of Big Eyes are intense, whimsical and lovely. A scene where Margaret imagines everyone in a grocery store with huge waif eyes is a little silly, but far from the overblown CGI mess of Alice in Wonderland.
Like Ed Wood and Big Fish, Big Eyes is about a bullshitter and what happens to bullshitters who have big dreams without the wherewithal to pull them off. When does a story go from a tall tale to just a lie? Margaret is shy and a bit meek–up until this point we get the sense that she’s never really fought on behalf of her paintings, content to paint for the sheer joy of it and make a little money doing it when and if she can. It is true that Walter is charming and persuasive and knows how to market oneself and make a splash. It is, sadly, not entirely a stretch to also say that perhaps Walter is right–a woman’s art may not have been taken as seriously in 1955, and big-eyed waif children weren’t exactly a raging trend in a period that celebrated beatniks and Andy Warhol. But Walter has no emotional connection to the paintings and no connection to art at all. He’s not a painter. He’s just a celebrity-hound who wants to be remembered. He has the showmanship to achieve celebrity, but it’s a hollow kind of celebrity, something Margaret doesn’t even want until she realizes that painting for celebrity and painting for love don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Amy Adams is typically great, almost as wide-eyed as her subjects with an endearing naiveté that gets heartbreakingly compromised by her fame-grubbing husband. It’s a wonderful role for her, and I’m damn near sure she wakes up to twittering birds helping her dress in the morning.
As for Christoph Waltz, well, I’d be happy watching him in a movie about paint drying (which I suppose does technically happen in this movie). I was initially confused by his over-the-top hamminess in Big Eyes–he’s so weird! He plays Walter with a gleeful sort of manic charisma, and this unhinged prancing took me out of the film a bit. When I got home after seeing Big Eyes I did a bit of Googling, though, and evidently Walter Keane insisted until his death that he was the true originator of the Big Eyes leading some to believe he may have had delusional disorder. Waltz’s performance takes on another, subtler layer: that Walter Keane’s eccentricities stemmed from private as well as public delusion, giving the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” a bleaker connotation.