Burton Returns To Roots With Cozy "Big Eyes"

“Big Eyes” is Tim Burton’s smallest film since “Ed Wood,” the 1994 comedy-drama biopic about the good-natured but legendarily incompetent film director. Twenty years on, it remains Burton’s masterwork, a tongue in cheek but deeply personal self-portrait of the outcast Burton ostensibly sees when he looks in the mirror. The further he’s drifted into spectacle in the years since – his alternatively gothic and wacky flights of fancy utterly untethered – the further he’s removed himself from his original strength: character work.

Burton’s talent for painting oddball characters in a distinct visual style was what made him a name in the first place, a name squandered on hot air like 2001’s “Planet Of The Apes” and 2010’s “Alice In Wonderland.” He’s done good work in the intervening years, but nothing close to the effortlessly sublime heights of “Ed Wood.”

Enter two equally kooky real-life characters – Walter and Margaret Keane – and a reunion with Burton’s “Ed Wood” scribes, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and “Big Eyes” sets up to be the director’s triumphant return to storytelling. Which it is. And it isn’t. This bizarre tale of 60s artist Margaret Keane having her art attributed to her scheming husband Walter is an idyllic venue for Burton to examine his own mercurial career, his own strange tastes.

The result is a lovingly crafted, uncommonly astute look at gender roles in American families. It’s also a surprisingly pleasant, breezy affair, but it’s that duality that reveals its primary weakness – tone. It’s a movie of two parts – one light, one heavy – that Burton and company never manage to wrangle into a meaningful whole. Its short running time actually works against it, likely leaving some moviegoers to ask, “That’s it?” and give a hearty shrug of the shoulders.

It’s unfortunate that the film is bookended by its most ineffectual component: Danny Huston’s role as a tabloid journalist. The character is nothing more than a suit and glasses at a typewriter, casually uncovering the story for us via sleepy voiceover that’s as clumsily obvious as possible. Fellow supporting player Krysten Ritter (AMC’s “Breaking Bad”) has a face that looks plucked from a Tim Burton fever dream, but she, too, serves no purpose in her role as Margaret’s friend who shows no evidence of actually being her friend.

No, the film rests entirely on the shoulders of its two leads. Luckily, they carry the day.

Margaret (Amy Adams, “American Hustle”) begins the picture as a newly minted divorcee and single mother. It’s 1958 when she meets fellow aspiring painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”), a charming realtor with deep passion for all things art. They’re soon married, with him diving into a world of Parisian landscapes, her toiling away on expressionistic portraits of big-eyed children. When Margaret’s work is discovered by a wealthy Italian tastemaker, Walter – in all his used car salesman glory – suggests that he be the one to take credit. No one would take the work of a woman seriously. Margaret reluctantly agrees.

The lie inevitably snowballs, gaining momentum as the big-eyed children become a runaway success. It’s here that the film hits its stride, openly inquiring whether or not her art is any good – a little surprising, since Burton is an avowed real-life fan. Is it good art? Is it art at all? Is it hack drug store work earmarked for postcards and magnets? These aren’t questions the screenplay answers, but it doesn’t have to. Adams and Waltz are the best conversational conduits possible, leaving moviegoers to make up their own minds.

While Margaret isn’t exactly a sparkplug of personality, Adams imbues her with a strong sense of self. She’s the ideal performer to enact the birth of a feminist out of her time, while Waltz continues to be a wonder. The two-time Oscar winner brings a veneer of charm to Walter Keane, control freak, master manipulator, making him magnetic until the very end. Even at his most dastardly, we can’t help but admire his talent for all things duplicitous. And his transition from loving husband to crook is seamless.

As Tim Burton’s first bona fide character study in two decades, “Big Eyes” is a welcome moral victory, one that just happens to have a surplus of interesting pockets and compartments – too many to ignore. While not exactly a sock-knocker, it’s a gentle reminder of a talent that’s still very much with us, no matter the bumpy detours, no matter the endless cynicism they might provoke. Margaret and Walter Keane are fascinating artifacts of an era gone by, but not forgotten, drawn so well here – in beaming technicolor! – that most would be remiss not to pay a visit.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)