Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2015)
Across his 30 years as a director, Tim Burton has tended toward action and fantasy. Even when he broke with that trend via 1994’s Ed Wood, he created a quirky biographical drama that avoided a traditional sensibility.
For the first time in 20 years, Burton returns to the bio-pic well with 2014’s Big Eyes. Set in Northern California circa 1958, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her bad marriage and takes her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) with her.
They wind up in San Francisco and Margaret attempts to pursue a career as a painter. This doesn’t go especially well, but she eventually meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fellow artist. Walter charms and romances Margaret, and the pair quickly wed.
Walter attempts to peddle both their art but only Margaret’s portraits of enormous-eyed children sell. These become a big hit – and Walter takes credit for them.
This bothers Margaret but she goes along with it because Walter seems better able to promote and move the art. While the work becomes tremendously successful and makes the couple wealthy, problems eventually ensue, as the lie overwhelms the relationship.
20 years ago I thought Burton was a genius, but I have to admit I’ve soured on him somewhat over that time. He seems to create more duds than winners these days, and I go into his movies with low expectations.
Burton now tends to succeed best when he ventures away from his usual fare. Of the eight 21st century directorial efforts Burton did prior to Eyes, I thought only two worked well: 2004’s Big Fish and Sweeney Todd. While both nodded toward Burton’s usual quirks, they still deviated from his standard path to a reasonable degree.
Because of this, I hoped Big Eyes would bring me Burton’s first satisfying film in years. While I don’t think it matches up with his better earlier efforts, Eyes does become an interesting look at its subject.
Eyes< might be Burton’s most traditional movie – at least since Ed Wood. I hesitate to call Wood “traditional” because it created such an exuberant and campy bio-pic, but it lacks the overt weirdness that comes with most of Burton’s work.
The same holds true for Eyes. Burton occasionally allows the film to indulge in unusual elements – like a visual effects-laden sequence in which Margaret sees people with large eyes ala her art – but most of the movie goes down a standard path, albeit one touched with some of Burton’s flamboyance. Like Wood, there’s a slightly surreal feel about a lot of the film’s depictions.
Nonetheless, Burton largely restrains himself, and even with those occasional extravagant tendencies, the narrative goes down a logical, traditional path. I regard that as a good thing, as it creates a more human, emotional tale that I might expect from Burton. Given his standard tendencies and the kitsch factor involved with the titular artwork, I feared the movie would be equally over the top and ironic.
Big Eyes avoids that, as it concentrates on the Margaret/Walter relationship and how this evolves due to their business partnership. Those factors work best during the movie’s first half. I find the parts about their rise to prominence more interesting than the bickering/downfall, and the tale thrives as we see the Keane art sell in huge numbers. When we get to the inevitable decline, matters sputter somewhat – not terribly, but enough to mean the movie seems less compelling.
Some of this stems from Waltz’s flamboyant performance as Walter. When we see Walter as lively and charismatic, Waltz’s work becomes engaging, but when Walter goes to a darker place, the movie and Waltz’s turn don’t go along for the ride. Waltz creates such a perky, theatrical Walter that the film avoids some of the emotional darkness it should probably explore.
This becomes more notable as a contrast with Adams’ much more reality-based performance as Margaret. She gives a gravity to Margaret that doesn’t exist in Waltz’s Walter, and some of that makes sense, as the movie intends to paint Walter as a charismatic con-man.
Nonetheless, the disconnect between Adams’ and Waltz’s approaches to their roles becomes more glaring as the movie progresses. It probably doesn’t help that Burton plays some events for laughs when he should look toward a more dramatic path.
Those quibbles aside, I think Eyes mostly entertains. While not as dynamic and distinctive as I might like, it still provides an interesting enough take on a fascinating subject.