Fans of Tim Burton's early films have been holding out hope that his new movie Big Eyes will signal a return to form for the master of quirky goth movies. And it does ... up to a certain point.
On paper, the through line of Tim Burton's filmography is his unending desire to champion the oddball outsider, an archetype that no doubt appeals to an artist whose work was deemed too edgy for Disney early in his career.
His debut feature, 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, offers the ultimate example ("I'm a loner, Dottie .. a rebel"). His second, Beetlejuice, cemented the whimsically goth sensibility that he'd wield in many films to come, including most of his work with Johnny Depp: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Dark Shadows, and the animated Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie, plus the Harry Selick-directed Burton production The Nightmare Before Christmas. (There's also Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice and Wonderland, both anchored by Depp performances that wobble between self-indulgent and colorfully ghoulish.)
Even Burton's Batman films portray a lonely figure suffused with quirks. (Could Michael Keaton have brought so much pathos to his aging-superhero character in Birdman if he'd starred in, say, the flashier Joel Schumacher Batman films?)
Thematic similarities aside (Burton's resume also includes forced-whimsy exercise Big Fish; scifi throwback Mars Attacks!; and Planet of the Apes), the films play very differently on the screen. Burton's critical acclaim began to waver after Sleepy Hollow and ran aground with Apes, a financial success that nonetheless failed to resonate with his fan base — and has aged poorly in comparison to the recent Apes reboots. Though he continued to find box-office success and his films garnered awards for their scenic achievements, by the time Chocolate Factory rolled around in 2005, audiences hungry for innovative, live-action doses of fanciful-meets-macabre had turned to the likes of Guillermo del Toro instead.
So it came to pass that Burton's outsider characters — especially when portrayed by a garishly-attired Depp, whose overall cool quotient sunk further with each film he made wearing a pirate wig for Burton's old nemesis, Disney — were no longer interesting to actual outsiders. How many fans of the Dark Shadows TV series lined up to watch Burton's smirking take on the soap opera, his most recent live action film until this week's Big Eyes?
Ah, Big Eyes. Into a career that's been teetering between all-out commercialism and what's clearly a still-beating, darkly creative heart comes a film that finally offers OG fans hope that the Burton who'd made Ed Wood 20 years ago (arguably his best film) would finally be returning to form. Drawn from the intriguing true story of artists-con artists-kitsch purveyors Margaret and Walter Keane, it didn't remake another property, and its cast (Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz) did not include Depp.
That said, the oddly slight Big Eyes feels more like the start of a new inning than a home-run derby. It begins with housewife Margaret (Adams) leaving her never-seen first husband, young daughter in tow, and exchanging a suburban neighborhood rendered in Edward Scissorhands pastels for San Francisco's North Beach, circa the beatnik era. It's not long before she meets Walter Keane (Waltz) at an open-air art fair, where he's doing a brisk business selling Parisian street scenes (and charming every woman who passes by), and she's doing just OK sketching portraits and peddling paintings of wide-eyed waifs.
She's lonely, he's an opportunist, and they spark, entering into a whirlwind romance that's bolstered by what appears to be an absolute belief in her talent, or at least the marketability thereof. Once he latches on, Walter's stellar sales skills (honed via a career in real estate) make Margaret's paintings the hottest property in the art world. This, despite an amateurish, eerie quality that repulses art-world snobs, including a too-hip gallery owner and a highbrow art critic (Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp, both deployed as comic relief, occasionally with distracting results).
Big Eyes' central conflict, of course, is that Walter almost immediately starts taking credit for Margaret's art, first blaming sexism in the art world (because who would be foolish enough to buy lady art?), then convincing her that the money's too good to give up the charade once his ruse takes off. Her horror at the corner she's painted herself into (to borrow a joke from the film) escalates throughout the film, as this callous man she's married practices creative identity theft with zeal, insisting even Margaret's ever-suspicious young daughter be kept in the dark.
Waltz is effective as a charming snake, while Adams brings her trademark I-seem-fragile-but-I'm-made-of-steel resolve to Margaret, who eventually manages to recover that strength that enabled her to ditch her first husband and leave Walter and his lies behind. The script suffers from certain biopic tics, compressing events and characters. Krysten Ritter, portraying Margaret's old friend, pops by periodically to be like, "Girlll, why you putting up with this?" on behalf of the audience.
Visually, the film is surprisingly conventional. Aside from a few scenes in which Margaret's "big eyes" come to life and stare her down, scrutinizing and judging her, Burton's trademark visual flourishes are mostly absent. The period-appropriate set dressings are on point, but there are few "this is a Tim Burton joint" moments, so much so that it had to have been a deliberate to tone everything down.
At its heart, Big Eyes — which eventually finds its way into a courtroom scene so bizarre it had to have been lifted from real life — is less a film about creative struggles than it is about being married to an egomaniac. But it does dip its tastefully polished toes into the Big Question of bad art, with a line Burton himself must have pondered while making his own career decisions: "What's wrong with the lowest common denominator?"