Film Review – Big Eyes
There are two Tim Burton movies I love: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Ed Wood. In my view, the world is a better place because they exist. I’m not a big fan of the rest; they’re just not my thing. His visual style does nothing for me, and while I can appreciate his carefully crafted worlds, I can never really enter into them. I have been however, really looking forward to his new movie, Big Eyes, about painter Margaret Keane. This is a different kind of story for Burton; it’s grounded in reality while still being ripe for his stylistic flourishes. It takes place in the 1950s and 60s, and he places his usual gothic sensibilities on the back burner to create a hyper-real past embedded in detail. It’s a beautifully rendered universe and lovingly shot. There are some wonderful things going on compositionally, which is great because sometimes I think filmmakers forget how to use the frame in their favor. It’s beautiful, and the original story is interesting, but somehow this movie ends up being just a little bit boring.
The story begins with Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaving her controlling husband and heading off to San Francisco with her daughter. She struggles to find work, but eventually becomes employed painting furniture. She has higher aspirations for her skills, and ends up meeting fellow painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) while drawing portraits at a park. He wines and dines her, and, in a very short period of time, makes her his wife. He tries to get both of their art careers off the ground by renting a wall (near the bathrooms it turns out) at a local, hot jazz club, but only Margaret’s paintings of large-eyed children drum up any interest. While Walter’s paintings are somewhat lackluster images of the Left Bank of Paris, his real skill is in the art of making money. He convinces his wife no one will buy her paintings if they know a woman made them, and she lets him take credit. As her images become part of mainstream culture, Margaret becomes more and more isolated: losing her few friends and hiding everything from her daughter. The truth about her opportunist husband becomes very clear to her, and she must decide if a life built on a lie is one she wants to lead.
There’s a lot of good stuff here. The film is gorgeous, and Amy Adams is wonderful in the lead performance. It seems preposterous that a woman would let her husband take credit for her work, but Adams gives Margaret a vulnerability that rings true. She weds Keane shortly after her previous marriage ends, and while she does seem to care for him, it’s obvious at least some of her motivation comes from wanting someone else to be in charge. By leaving her marriage and pursuing painting as a career, Margaret puts herself about as far out of traditional gender roles as she can bear. As soon as Walter comes along, it’s a relief to go back to being a wife. The film does a really good job of portraying this push and pull between desire and comfort. The film also scores by giving Margaret a friend – DeeAnn (Krysten Ritter). It’s sounds like such a simple thing, but so many films portray the lives of women as though they only existed in relation to either men or their family.
But for all the good things in the film, it’s just kind of dull. Part of the problem is that there is no tension to keep the audience involved. I was ignorant of all but the most general facts of the story, but the movie is presented in such a way that there are no surprises. It follows a very traditional “feel good” story arc with no interesting storytelling flourishes or out-of-the-blue moments. Also, to be perfectly honest, Christoph Waltz is horribly miscast. I didn’t particularly mind his German accent; Keane was American, but whatever. Far more egregious accent crimes have been committed in better films. He just plays Keane as a total sleazebag from the very start. There’s no way Margaret is going to fall for this guy because he telegraphs from day one “I am a creeper.” It’s just another way this film eliminates any sense of suspense from the story. It’s not a horrible movie, but it’s also not very good. If you are looking for something inoffensive and predictable (and I know that many people are) then you are going to have a decent time watching Big Eyes. Everyone else should be prepared for a vague sense of disappointment for a mostly wasted opportunity.