It is entirely possible that Big Eyes signals a new phase of Tim Burton’s career. Upon the death rattle of the vaunted “I actually care about my films” phase fifteen years ago, he went on a decade sabbatical in the tar pits. Or the cotton-candy pits, I suppose. Big Eyes is something of a lift-off away from the muck he grew to shill out throughout most of the ’00s, but having removed himself, he has not necessarily set himself on a new course.
If, as some have touted it, Big Eyes is a return to form of sorts, then I must ponder what form they are speaking about. Certainly not the wonderfully demented goblin form that ran a mutiny against the doldrums of conventional middlebrow cinema and resulted in, all within a phantasmagorical decade-long run, the wonders of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks (along with the odd misfire like the original Batman thrown in simply to remind us that Burton was a mere mortal). True, Big Eyes is not nearly the worst Tim Burton vehicle; many of Burton’s recent films were not even really films, but garbage dumps. Big Eyes, in comparison, at least has the functional shape of a motion picture. But it is not an especially invested one by those standards.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong about bringing the tale of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who painted kitschy caricatured bits of whimsical art predominantly featuring gigantic childhood eyes attached to mortally diminutive bodies, to cinematic life. Nor is there anything wrong with Tim Burton bringing this story to life. There are plenty of “ins” for the material, predominantly the latent question of artistic value butting heads with personal peace (visible in Burton’s career as early as Scissorhands, and no doubt personal to him as a filmmaker who prefers to make disreputable mad monster mashes over middlebrow Type-A pictures). No less provocative are the abuses felt by Margaret when her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) gaslights her into signing public authorship of the paintings to him, knowing that mid 20th century America was not necessarily ready and willing to go to bat for a female painter of so-called “lesser art styles”.
Both are fine thematic horses to tie your film too, and yet Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski do neither as writers of a screenplay that hovers in a sort of vaguely important, middle-ground blasé nothingness for most of its run. It never develops anything more than a passing interest in the twisting nether of the value Keane’s art (unlike, say, Scissorhands, which is an implicit treatise on the value of B-movies from the 1930s and their creators). It neither pays homage to their chic artifice and personal passion nor mocks their broad brush strokes and sleepy craft; the film simply acknowledges that these paintings exist, and moves on.
In doing so, Big Eyes, the motion picture, is a far more conventionally respectable and sanded-off work of art than Keane’s paintings, or Burton’s earlier films, ever were. There-in lies the heart of the problem, I suspect: this is not a Tim Burton motion picture. It is an Edward Zwick motion picture, or a picture from any of the murderer’s row of vacant, arbitrary Classical A-picture director of your choice, that Tim Burton happens to have gotten his name on. Not a picture designed to provoke or peruse or dance with darkness or challenge film form (or to even question it, like Keane’s paintings arguably do, if the film had wished to take us anywhere in the vicinity of that discussion). It is simply a picture designed to appease middle-aged suburbanites, to acknowledge the presence of a historical event in the world without commenting on that even or applying it to any artistic purpose. It is a film that exists to win awards. Exactly the kind of motion picture a young Tim Burton, with his venomous and undying desire to peruse film history and unleash some of the seminal but forgotten texts of apparently “lesser genres”, would have made fun of.
The only two people who seem to be operating in “Tim Burton” mode, and thus the only two life-givers in the motion picture, are Waltz, who plays Keane’s husband with all the theatrical fop of a Snidely Whiplash, and Bruno Delbonnel, whose day-glo, pop-art colors both satirize and pay homage to the cheerily superficial spirit of Keane’s paintings and the kitschy Americana they represent. Delbonnel’s cinematography would be the perfect secret weapon in a Tim Burton film, say, twenty years, ago, when Burton was actually interested in pursuing presentational works of energetic abandon, works replete with production design lighting-bolts aplenty. In this film, however, the cinematography feels like window dressing.
The same can be said, sadly, for Amy Adams’ performance as Keane herself. Put simply, she heaves and whimpers and stares distressingly with the best of them, clearly mustering every fabric of her being to be taken seriously. Like the cinematography and Waltz’s work, it is a great element in the wrong film. Two decades ago, this sort of anemic work was exactly the type of cinema Tim Burton would have conspired against. He used to dissect middlebrow audiences and popular cinematic trends. Now he’s catering to them.