There Are Colorful Lies In Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ (Movie Review)

Big Eyes: 3 ½ out of 5

Margaret:  I painted every single one of em’; every ‘big eye’; me. And no one will ever know but you…

The chance to see a director switch gears and focus on something far separated from their previous work can be exciting.  As a Tim Burton fan, I do not fault him for making a lot of films that seem right up his alley.  That the recent output has not been as compelling as the films in his past is unfortunate, but now we have Big Eyes, which reteams Burton with the writers of Ed Wood, arguably Tim Burton’s best feature film.  The resulting product is a smaller scale, more personal story than anything Burton has been involved with in quite some time, featuring two strong, lead performances.  It is not an over-the-top fantasy, but a drama that delves into the worth of one’s identity.

Based on a true story, Big Eyes is centered on Margaret and Walter Kean (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), a married couple who both claimed to be artists.  The twist of this story revolves around Walter and how he lied about being the artist responsible for all of Margaret’s work.  Margaret developed her own style of painting characters with great, big eyes, only to have Walter make the argument for being able to sell these paintings successfully, because a man’s name would be more profitable.  Drama obviously ensues, as poor Margaret is forced to live a lie, while Walter’s name and the work he claims ownership over makes him something of a celebrity in the art world.

The film features a number of good actors, including Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Terence Stamp, Jason Schwartzman, and Jon Polito, but they are hardly a factor in what more or less amounts to a two-hander between Adams and Waltz.  Both are great in this film, with Amy Adams generating a heavy amount of sympathy, given the place her character is put in; while Waltz does all that he can to play a true braggart that manages to remain charismatic, despite how obviously devilish his character is.  Both of these actors are in fine form and it stems from the way screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski treat this story.

While not shying away from the drama that comes with one person essentially stealing the livelihood from another, the script allows for the film to have a level of fun with what is going on, making Big Eyes a kind of sad comedy that is basically ideal for someone like Tim Burton.  And yes, while this film does not feature the kind of elaborate production and art design that screams Burton, it still very much feels like a Burton film.  Look at the way color is used, how we see certain settings, and most obviously, the type of art that these characters are dealing with.  Anyone that knows the work of Burton can see how a film like this easily fits in his canon, even if it is a much more dialed-down affair that lacks the presence of Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and the rest of the crew do a fine job of capturing a 50s/60s setting that actually does seem like a unique Burton world of sorts.  I was especially fond of wide shots that appeared to have backgrounds appearing as stylized landscape paintings, as opposed to just featuring the kind of CGI necessary to recreate the land of the past.  It is the sort of detail that allows this film to revel in being so focused on the art world, which is not the most in-depth look, but certainly one that keeps the subject matter close to the main narrative taking place.

If anything, the movie falters not by being too personal, but by having a lack of that something extra.  With Ed Wood, it was the incredibly earnest nature of Johnny Depp’s performance, mixed with the touching relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi, which kept that film’s spirit alive.  Big Eyes is more of a Tim Burton-take on a far less traumatic version of Kramer Vs. Kramer in a sense, which does not suggest a film that is continually enjoyable on repeated viewings, despite a strong theme about feminism somewhat making its way surface.  All of that in mind, I would not downplay the quality of this film overall, as far as the acting and production goes, as it is far more enjoyable than Burton’s more recent, big-budget features.

Big Eyes is a fine film that seems like something of a palette cleanser for Tim Burton.  Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz are terrific in this good-looking period drama that has enough entertaining sensibilities to make it a fine way to take in such an odd, but true story.  I hardly delved into this, but the way this film finds an understanding of how to show the betrayal Margaret Keane faces and what that means to her is certainly a fascinating topic for a story, so good on Burton and company for attempting to build an engaging drama out of it.  I do not know where Tim Burton will go from here, but I enjoyed this change of pace.

Margaret:  These paintings are a part of my being. 


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