When future scholars and critics next look back on the career of Tim Burton, a certain amount of attention has to be paid to his most recent effort, the biopic Big Eyes. While it might be the least Burton-y film the mainstream, pop-art, gothic auteur has created to date, it might be his most thematically interesting, outwardly entertaining, and emotionally rewarding effort since Ed Wood in 1994. Considering he’s once again teaming with Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote similarly spot on looks at Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman for Milos Forman) on a look back on a misunderstood icon of pop-culture kitsch, it’s not very surprising that Burton would get his groove back. But thanks to a wealth of material that’s quite timely despite having a period setting, Big Eyes belongs in the discussion alongside Wood and Edward Scissorhands when talking about the best films he’s produced. It’s a dignified knock-out punch of a film and the only major release of the holiday season that I continually find myself coming back to and thinking about.
Leaving her husband behind and taking her daughter with her, Margaret (Amy Adams) tries to start a new life in late 1950s San Francisco. She’s a struggling portrait artist with a penchant for drawing waif-like characters with almost comically large, sad looking eyes. She catches the eye of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fledgling real estate peddler and amateur landscape painter, who she marries out of impulse (fearing her ex-husband will try to take their daughter away from her) and is convinced into pooling her resources with his to try and get their artistic endeavours flourishing. While Margaret stays home, Walter becomes the talk of the town, a megastar painter, and scourge of “serious” art critics everywhere; not because of his crappy, lifeless faux-European landscapes, but because he has been taking credit for all of Margaret’s hard work.
There’s a lot to unpack within the film, and a lot of it comes from the fact that no matter how far the rights of women have progressed since the 1960s, we still haven’t come far enough. Despite its lighter touches and seemingly sunny disposition, Big Eyes moves along with an increasingly uncomfortable darkness. From the moment we see Waltz’s Walter with his foreshadowing, sycophantic grin, even people who don’t know what transpired between Walter and Margaret will know he’s a snake. He advances on her innocuously, but Burton rightfully frames it – along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) – as if the Big Bad Wolf had suddenly been let loose into a colourful and happy theme park.
There’s an immediate sadness to their relationship that sadly feels period appropriate. It has been already established that Margaret is a woman who’s strong enough to leave a bad situation, but naive enough to believe that immediately bunking down with a guy who seems kind of dopey, but sort of okay is a good idea. She’s a product of her time, and yet part of her seems to understand that she doesn’t need a man to be happy. She needs a man to seem socially acceptable. Burton, Alexander, and Karaszewski are not passing any judgment one way or the other, and they certainly don’t make Walter’s proposition of marriage to come across as anything less than self-serving to his own ego, but it starts of a slippery slope that recalls current affairs.
When things between Walter and Margaret become a lot more psychologically and emotionally abusive, this woman’s cries for help recall our cultural climate at the moment. With stories about abuses committed by people in power or celebrities that are protected by media and fans coming to light in countries around the world, Big Eyes seems sadly prescient. We didn’t believe women back then when they were being harmed by those who sought to empower them, and sadly, we still don’t. When Margaret goes to church and tries to confess about her troubles, she’s essentially told to smile and keep her mouth shut. Margaret is more or less locked away from her own daughter (Delaney Raye as a young girl, Madeleine Arthur as a teen, both wonderful) so she can do all of Walter’s work except for the schmoozing and glad-handing. Even when a concerned friend (Krysten Ritter, in a small, but vital role) makes inroads to reconnect with her estranged bestie, she’s run off for being nosy by Walter’s creatively impotent rage.
The main battle of the story is one of credibility and respect running afoul of honesty and integrity. It was a climate when “no one” was “interested in ‘lady art’,” and yet, Walter is so brazenly dishonest (with an increasing amount of lies that will still come to light well into the film) that the audience immediately questions how he could ever get away with it. The answer is sadly simple and almost provocatively shoved into the audience’s face: because this is how we as a society have allowed it to be. And Burton has toned back his considerable amount of style to let the question take centre stage instead of upstaging it.
There’s a refined bit of thematic understatement at work here that Burton hasn’t trafficked in since Big Fish, Wood, and Scissorhands, and it kind of proves once and for all that he should stick to these kinds of narratives and animated films. There’s a heart to Big Eyes, but it’s a sad and heavy one whose moments of levity are necessary to keep from weeping through the harsher moments. It’s still impeccably production designed to look like the life of someone living amid a blossoming arts community in the 1960s, but it never distracts or hinders the underlying points of the material.
Burton also defers much of the dramatic heavy lifting to his script and the leads. It’s a work of art where the artist has taken his own ego out of the equation. That decision also plays into the film’s other major motif: what we consider to be high art and what critical types and academics classify as low art designed to opiate the masses. In a year filled with no less than half a dozen films to have a dour, asshole critic play a major role, it says something about Alexander and Karaszewski’s material that their film can include two such characters in the same film who are strong enough to not play against the film’s protagonist. Jason Schwartzman’s snooty gallery owner and Terence Stamp’s unflappable print pundit aren’t nice people on paper, and while they hate Margaret’s art, it seems like they hate it more because they can’t stand Walter’s posturing as some sort of cause celeb that’s being helped along by a tabloid shill (Danny Huston). They’re stern faced comedic relief, but never the villains because the audience never loses sight of the fact that Walter is firmly the bad guy. They don’t like the art that Margaret is turning out, but they aren’t even reacting to the art itself. It’s abundantly clear that they’re reacting to the hubris that’s blowing Walter’s societal status out of proportion.
So how does one designate something as intellectually stimulating and something else as hack work that’s eaten up by the “unwashed masses?” Burton posits that the answer isn’t so simple, and that it’s something malleable; something defined by personal preference and societal skewing. It takes questions of authorship as a whole and applies them to a larger discussion of what role the author even has in discussion of the art on a critical level. Like I said, it’s a deceptively simple biopic on the surface, but the themes it keeps bringing up will stick with perceptive viewers long after it ends.
And in all this discussion about the rich material, I feel remiss that I haven’t yet talked about the two exemplary lead performances that bind the film’s various threads together. Adams has to constantly display an inner strength, a creative streak, and a latent fear that her life could come crashing down around her. We don’t need to know that Margaret’s past weighs on her heavily because it’s apparent from the opening scene that she has been running forward without escaping her problems her entire life. She wants to cry and scream, but she wants to protect her daughter. In a somewhat half-assed way, she has also found her voice as an artist. Adams has to play an incrementally growing amount of frustration with a constant amount of fear, and it’s hard to do without devolving into Sirk-ian melodrama, but she constantly grounds the film – and indeed the period itself – in a crushing sense of reality.
As for Waltz, it’s a performance that he has given before, but no less of a valid one. There are many similarities that can be drawn between his performance here and the one he delivers in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Instead of an altruistic bounty hunter, however, he uses nearly the exact same amount of charm and cunning to transform into one of the most insidious villains of the year. He’s a goof, but he’s a dangerous, soul sucking goof. You can see through Waltz’s work why critics would hate him and why people would be so drawn to him. He’s a magnetic asshole trying to bring anyone and everyone into his diseased anus, to keep them there and stifle them with charm just as he has done to his suffering wife.
There’s bound to be a lot said about the film’s climactic courtroom showdown between Margaret and Walter on a critical level, and I’m sure quite a bit of it will be on the negative side, since it’s the one portion of the film that openly seems to be out of a “classical” Burton film. Pay those critics no mind, for that very section of the film proves to be an incredibly vital bit of catharsis after being immersed in a world of stomach churning anger towards Margaret’s plight. It’s a release that’s designed as hopeful screed on how humanity isn’t entirely cold and cynical. It becomes something life affirming, even if it almost definitely isn’t exactly how things went down in reality.
It’s been a good year for film, and although I already published my list of the best films of the year, I almost immediately think that I have underrated Big Eyes despite its inclusion at the bottom of the list. I have a thought that upon closer examination and re-watches my opinion of the film will increase beyond that point. It might disappoint Burton fans looking for the magical realism of Big Fish or the kookiness of his Johnny Depp collaborations, but it comes at a point in the filmmaker’s career where his live action films were in danger of becoming stale. It’s not just a film that’s “good enough” considering his recent output. It’s genuinely excellent, and a reminder of what a great filmmaker he can be when presented with great material and a perfect cast. It’s also the first film since Mars Attacks! to not feature Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, and while that might seem like a minor thing and it’s not meant to insinuate that either of those actors are (always) a distraction, the new blood finds the artist wildly rejuvenated and almost reinvented.