Big Eyes isn’t the first time Tim Burton has tackled a ‘Based On True Events’ biography. There was of course his wonderfully entertaining Ed Wood but that film always had a certain Burton-esque quirk inherently ingrained in it. Big Eyes, at least at first glance, would seem to be something of a move away from his normal skewed look at the world but as is his want Burton is able to turn any story to his unique sensibilities. The results, while mixed, do lend themselves to a film that feels as if Burton is exorcising a few ghosts of his own artistic career.
Fleeing her husband, Margret (Amy Adams) arrives in San Francisco and draws the attention of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) with her Big Eye paintings. When the paintings become increasingly popular Walter sees an opportunity to make a fortune. But claiming female artists aren’t taken seriously he convinces the world, with Margaret’s reluctant support, that he is in fact the artist. As gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) helps boost Walter’s profile so Margaret’s life and artistic integrity comes under strain while Walter’s ego goes unchecked.
Like the paintings at the centre of the film Big Eyes often struggles to settle into one thing. At first it’s a story of hope, Margaret fleeing her old life and starting a new one but it rapidly descends into a more serious and often compelling drama. The problem is Burton is unable to let his more cartoonish side go. Here is a story that sees a man dominating a woman to such a degree she begins to doubt her own identity.
Walter is, certainly in Waltz’s hands, a cad, a fraud but done with such over-the-top exuberance it’s hard to really hate him the way we’re supposed to. The film never questions Keane’s real life claims that he was the true artist, which is fine but to then make him quite so entertaining feels like a misstep. One of the film’s highlights is the climatic court case in which Walter chooses to represent himself, at one point running from the witness box to bench to question himself as to the authenticity of Margaret’s claims against him. It’s funny, as is the intent, but not twenty minutes earlier we’ve witnessed this man throwing lit matches at his wife and stepdaughter. The effect is often jarring.
But within the tonal misgivings there is a sense of Burton trying to express himself through Margaret’s plight. That on some level people either don’t get the art and when they do they consume in such volumes it loses any real value. It’s the difference between a Frankenweenie and an Alice In Wonderland. The Big Eyes paintings capture the struggle of the artist between commerce and expression. At one point it is stated that “Walter Keane was not a subtle man, but subtle doesn’t sell”. This seems an apt way of summing up Burton’s work.
Like Margaret, Burton sees the world differently to the rest of us and it is here, although only fleetingly, that Big Eyes works. It captures an isolated soul desperately trying to express itself through unconventional means and in doing so creating something unique. This is in no small part thanks to Amy Adams’ captivating performance. She imbues Margaret with a wide-eyed innocence before slowly drawing a sense of proud frustration to the role.
Big Eyes, the film and the paintings, are something of an acquired taste, an interesting expression that always leaves you feeling like the world is not quite sitting on its axis right.