By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Once upon a time, a new Tim Burton film was an event worth paying attention to. Then, after a string of disappointing gothic tinged fantasies that began to border on parodying his earlier work, they became something best ignored. Big Eyes, an admirable attempt to try something different, doesn’t end the rut. Demonstrating restraint to the point of dullness, barring a woefully misjudged performance from Christoph Waltz, it’s a lifeless and overly simplistic biopic of artist Margaret Keane.
Margaret (Amy Adams), famous for the oversized eyes she paints onto her subjects, lived a lie across the 1950s/60s as husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) claimed credit for her work, turning it into a marketing phenomenon in the process. Burton, working from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay starts with Margaret arriving in San Francisco with her child following a split from her first husband. She soon falls under Walter’s spell and find herself his pawn before eventually breaking free.
Adams, a consistently solid performer in recent years, steeps Margaret in social introversion and loss without subduing her artistic voice. The desperation to care for her daughter above all else comes out in moments of beautifully repressed sadness as Walter’s domineering abuse seeks and manipulates this chink in her armour. She particularly shines when asked to describe her work, the only time Adams’ allows emotion to pour out of an otherwise stifled Margaret.
That she succeeds in bringing Margaret to life is all the more impressive given the dramatic shortcutting in the screenplay. All the key scenes are rushed, especially the climactic trial that seemed so rich with potential on paper – how often do court cases end on a paint-off? This trait carries through from the start. Her engagement to Walter occurs immediately after she receives an unpleasant letter. The decision then to let Walter steal her name comes too quickly, as does the reversal later. What could have been the bitterly gradual loss of self for a woman subject to the hectoring, bullying, abusive practices of her husband becomes a rush job.
By far the biggest problem is Waltz himself though. He’s a talented comedic actor but that’s all he brings to the part of Walter. Previous work with Tarantino has demonstrated a real knack for blurring comedy with chilling sadism. The latter is conspicuously absent here. As he clowns around the screen, there’s never a feeling that this man could have done the things Walter did to Margaret. The final trial goes completely off the rails as Waltz puts on a one man pantomime, mugging for the jury, telling ridiculous tales and even cross-examining himself by constantly dashing between the witness box and his table. It’s a performance fit for a slapstick comedy, not Big Eyes.
Burton doesn’t help himself elsewhere. Famous for his visual style, here he offers only a bland portrait of the San Francisco art world. The brash, shapeless colours surrounding the Keane family look like the effect early plasma TV screens had on films, robbing them of depth. A number of gimmicks also pop up adding very little. As her life disintegrates, Margaret starts to spot her (mis)patented big eyes on those around her. All this does is accentuate the cartoon gloss.
Initially, Big Eyes feels like a film torn between the darker abuse Margaret faced, and the quirky elements of her art. Burton ultimately opts for the easy option, allowing Waltz to bury all-comers (the likes of Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp also appear, not that you’d notice) beneath his show stopping impresario. In the process, he sucks the life out of everything else, burying the film along the way.
Big Eyes is in cinemas from Boxing Day.