Big Eyes Review

Posted: January 13, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

bigeyes_largeWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

When Tim Burton first hit the scene in the 80s and 90s, he was a great new artistic voice of cinema who presented the world through his own unique vision. His films were whimsical, artistic, moving, stylish, and still very accessible to a mainstream audience. Gradually though, his style started to regress into self-parody. People got used to the excessive make-up, Gothic imagery, and the repeated use of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. What once was visionary and exciting was now repetitive and dull. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that is most loved film of the last fifteen years is Big Fish, which shied away from Burton’s usual aesthetic while still retaining an artistic style. It seems Burton himself is aware of this as he’s gradually been doing away with his usual tropes for recent projects. His newest film is Big Eyes, a biopic of artist Margaret Keane which not only veers far from Burton’s usual work, but also reunites him with the screenwriters of one of his best films; Ed Wood.

The film opens win the late 50s with housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaving her controlling husband with her young daughter, Jane (Delaney Raye) and driving off to San Francisco. Margaret has no real job experience, but is a talented painter and one day her portraits of little girls with exaggerated big eyes catch the attention of fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). The two grow close and quickly marry so Margaret’s ex-husband cannot take Jane away. However their early honeymoon years are gradually overlooked when Walter begins to take credit for Margaret’s paintings, eventually building a vast fortune on sales, but hurting Margaret in the process.

I can see why the story would be appealing to storytellers as there is a lot of thematic content to mine here. Margaret Keane was a victim to sexism systemic to her setting and her experiences speak to the attachment an artist feels to her work, as well as the importance of marketing and personality when it comes to being a successful artist. The story is also full of colourful personalities and unique situations. The thing is, this ultimately becomes one of the film’s greatest weaknesses. Rather than explore any of these themes, the film more passes through, checks them off the list of things it needs to, and moves on. The film acknowledges how Margaret was devastated by having to lie about her art, but I can’t say its exploration had any power. Worse yet is a subplot involving a critic of the big eyes paintings played by Terrence Stamp. This critic does not see the paintings as art, but as commerce and dismisses their value. This brings another interesting dimension to the film, but Burton never actually explores it in a satisfactory way. It’s a shame too because it robs the film of rich ambiguity. Margaret deserves credit for the paintings. This is obvious and anyone who argues against that is an idiot. However the discussion of whether or not her work constitutes good art is a lot more grey, and the fact that the filmmakers decided to introduce that element only to back-out when it mattered bothers me. It’s a shame too because Terrence Stamp is quite good and I would have liked more with him. Thankfully, the story is so ingrained in the injustice of sexism that a feminist reading of the film is still very rewarding, and it’s also the one area that doesn’t need much elaboration. Margaret’s treatment is clearly the result of sexist bullshit, and Burton wisely lets the story show that naturally.

This feeling of skimming is also true for the characters. While the film features a cast that includes the likes of Danny Huston, Terrence Stamp, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Jon Polito, none of them seem particularly important to the story. Everyone just sort of fades in and out when necessary. It’d be one thing if the cast was absolutely stacked with actors who all played huge roles in Margaret’s life, but there is only a handful of people, and their place in the story feels a little messy. Huston in particular seems oddly inserted here. He gives a good performance, but why his narration begins and bookends the film is unknown to me. Of course, the real cast members to discuss are Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. I’m a huge fan of Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here. She plays Margaret with tender honesty, reserved shyness, and a playful demeanor beneath it all. She’s a very likable character and watching her gradually rise up and fight back against Walter is fun to watch. I was a lot less fond of Waltz’s performance, which struck me as to overtly villainous. Walter is supposed to subtly deceive Margaret, but Waltz is almost as gleefully evil as he was in Inglorious Basterds and it clashes with Adams’ more subdued approach. It also bothers me how the film teases character depth from Walter, but eventually just makes him a cartoonish obstacle to be overcome. It just feels like another missed opportunity.

Visually, this does differ from Burton’s expected style. There are very little blacks at all and the Gothic/expressionist style that usually permeates through his films is totally absent. The cinematography is more reminiscent to Burton’s Big Fish with its bright colours, and very clean look. This is naturally appropriate for a story about a painter and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does a very good job capturing the vast imagery. The art direction is also very impressive, capturing the 1950s and 60s quite well, and generally the look of the film matches the subject matter well. Burton also adds some sly touches which make this more visually interesting than the standard biopic, and there are a few truly inspired visual moments. I was a bit less fond of Danny Elfman’s score, which seemed really by the numbers and was too prominent in a lot of scenes.

When I first head of Big Eyes, I was hoping it would be a triumphant return to form for Tim Burton, but that isn’t really the case. I think the film suffers from a lot of the problems these biopics tend to fall into, namely the fact that it trades in depth for less challenging material, and that it reduces side characters to one-dimensional beings. There just isn’t anything that’s really exciting about Big Eyes. That said, the film does manage to do a number of things right. I do really enjoy the visual style, the technical aspects, the feminist reading, and the performance from Amy Adams. The story also moves at a nice breezy pace and is a pretty enjoyable watch. In short, it’s a likable little movie, and I imagine most who see it will like it. What will be harder to find is people who love it, and that’s because the film lacks the courage to take a real risk.


  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. It’s not the kind of movie we expect from Burton and for better or worse, that’s why it works as well as it does.

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