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BIG EYES – Review
December 24, 2014
Big Eyes sees Tim Burton take on and bring to life his traditional outsider hero again, with a noticeable improvement after a patch of uneven efforts. The slow-burn biopic pulls us in with its time and era, with its discussion of the gender politics of the day (sadly still pervasive today), as well as all the flair of the flow from the 1950s to the 1960s. However, while Burton has overdone quirk in his latest live action flick Dark Shadows (2012) – often quirk for quirk’s sake – he seems to have run out of it in this new effort.
The story follows the awakening of kitsch painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), after ditching her husband in suburbia and taking her daughter and paints to San Francisco. Her work as an artist becomes phenomenally successful in the 1950s – but no one knows it’s her work. With the gender politics of the time, Margaret reluctantly allows her new husband, Walter Keane (Christopher Waltz), to take credit, as her new love argues ‘I’m Keane, you’re Keane, from now on we’re one and the same’.
Walter himself is a frustrated painter, jealous of the success of his wife’s art over his own mundane Parisian street sketches. He becomes a maestro in blowing up his own success at his wife’s expense at a time of art explosion, arranging publicity shoot after shoot – from starting a fistfight in a bar to donating works to the Soviet Union. He becomes a national celebrity as he pioneers the mass production of prints a la Warhol, before spreading them outside of galleries to gas stations and hardware stores across the country.
The paintings themselves are, in all honesty, quite trite and not to everyone’s taste, unabashedly so, but that’s not the point. Margaret is not a groundbreaking artist, but she’s popular, according to Warhol’s quote at the start ‘If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.’ The film tracks the growing tension between the couple, the fraught power Walter grabs hold of, and the hostility Margaret becomes to feel.
However, this true-to-life story might come across too neat, too restrained, and simply put, a bit cautious, for many Burton’s fans. Granted, he is no longer testing the waters of sci-fi and fantasy, yet for such an absurd story, besides a flamboyant court scene, it all comes across a bit held back.
Nevertheless, Adams and Waltz deliver fantastic performances; Adams the passionate embodiment of a voice yearning to break through from the attic she is trapped in, and Waltz on the tight-rope between charismatic showboat and volatile, manipulative husband in his best non-Tarantino role yet (though his future Bond villain may hopefully surpass that). Kudos also to Terrence Stamp as the New York Times critic delivering the snappy one-liners and much of the laughs, as well as Jason Schwartzman as the 1950s root version of the modern American art snob hipster.
The film will be compared to Ed Wood, one of Burton’s earliest works, and still one of his best and most endearing – not least because the same co-writers wrote both. Both films concern misunderstood art and their estranged artists, and while Burton manages to set up an endearing and charming film, Big Eyes remains empty of the intrigue, the magic, and making-the-ordinary-extraordinary feel that has governed his past work.
Big Eyes remains a solid, enjoyable film, with plenty to admire, despite a lack in the bounce, chaos and that certain Burton spice the director often brought to film sets and that made so many of his past films memorable as part of our pop culture.
Big Eyes is available on DVD from April 20th