Burton's most tastefully designed film in years ultimately falls flat because Adams and Waltz can't get on the same page.
Following a string of fantastical films with hefty budgets (and less-than-desirable critical responses), Tim Burton takes a deep breath and a long step back with Big Eyes, his smallest, most reigned-in production since Ed Wood. It’s a smooth, dreamy-looking film on the surface, but its two leads, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, are so out of sync and polarized they spoil the movie like acid curdles milk.
What do you get when you curdle milk? Why, cheese, of course! And boy, does Waltz bring the cheese as Walter Keane, an artist who in the ’60s was the source of a global phenomenon, selling millions paintings (and prints and postcards and posters) of waifs with eyes so big and round they put Disney cartoons to shame. Walter drank up his stardom like cheap wine, touring the world and selling his masterpieces to the masses, taking all the credit and raking in all the money. In the ’70s, however, the world learned of Walter’s grand deception: The paintings, all signed “Keane”, weren’t painted by Walter at all, but by his wife, Margaret Keane (Adams).
For years the egomaniacal Walter held his wife and her artistry hostage, swindling the world as he basked in his unearned celebrity, the painted kids’ giant saucers staring back into the eyes of the deceivers. (Willingly or not, Margaret was part of the scandal, too.) Big Eyes‘ sole fuel source is the power struggle between the rival, betrothed artists. The film’s big question goes unanswered: Are Margaret’s paintings high art for dignitaries or throwaway kitsch for dummies? I would have loved to have heard Burton’s answer. Fixating narrowly on the Keane’s broken marriage (which, if it hadn’t been for the absurdly sexist constraints of marriage in the ’60s, wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long) isn’t necessarily a doomed game plan, but the way the relationship is depicted is woefully uneven, uncompelling, and unconvincing.
Adams’ Margaret is in a fevered rush, packing her things and her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye, later Madeline Arthur) into her car as the film opens. She’s leaving her first husband (who we never see), heading to San Francisco to start life anew. Selling her work at a park fair, Margaret is charmed by a fellow vendor and artist, Walter, who, after a few wolfish grins, clever lines, and fanciful stories over the course of a few dates, makes her his wife. (Aside from Walter’s keeping custody of Jane also goaded Margaret into the union.) With his keen business savvy and schmoozing skills, Walter manages to get he and Margaret’s paintings on the walls of a hip North Beach night club, though the ritzy clientele heavily gravitate toward Margaret’s “big eyes”, passing up Walter’s classical landscape paintings. Seizing a fiendish opportunity, he takes credit for his wife’s work because, as he explains later, “People don’t buy lady art.”
If you follow the screenplay’s every move, it’s pretty clear that this is a story about a woman’s self-liberation from cold servitude, but when you sit there and watch the domestic drama play out, with Margaret ultimately triumphing over Walter and exposing his scam, the story surprisingly doesn’t feel empowering or energetic at all. The film falls flat, not because Adams and Waltz’s performances themselves are subpar, but because their performances pull in opposite directions.
Adams plays Margaret grounded in realism, at first rife with insecurities, later pulsing with the confidence and resilience of a woman reborn. She’s sweet and sensitive, coveting her canvas as her only outlet for true, unbridled expression. Though the dialogue is awfully unremarkable, she infuses as much emotion as she can, emoting with subtle body language. Waltz…well, Waltz goes overboard. He’s a total ham in this one. He’s always had a hit-or-miss tendency with his delivery; either his lines sound emphatic, electric, and brave, or they sound cheesy, theatrical, and kinda creepy, like when your uncle gets all animated and overly excited when he tells an outdated joke no one finds funny but him. The most interesting wrinkle in Walter as a character is that, while he’s a fraud of an artist, he’s undeniably genius when it comes to the art of the con. This gets buried, however, under all of Waltz’s mad-man antics. With Adams aiming for gravitas and Waltz aiming for wackiness, the confusion causes the film to miss the mark with a big whiff.
The film has a pleasant, feathery look to it, like taking Burton’s signature style and upping the brightness so all of the dark, twisted elements get washed out in a haze of pastel. San Francisco serves as a heavenly backdrop for the story and works well with the film’s color palate. The loud art design on Burton’s recent projects needed to be reeled in a bit, and with Big Eyes he does just that, applying his artistic vision not to a distant fantasy land, but to a world we’re actually familiar with. It’s a shame his leads couldn’t find the same sweet spot together.