Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

When he's not directing remakes, adaptations of classic stories, special effects extravaganzas, or creepy animated tales, Tim Burton seems to have his sights set on oddball dramas about people who try to create worlds in which they're perceived as something greater than they really are (Ed Wood and Big Fish are the strongest examples). Thus it's no surprise that he would direct a film about one of the great acts of fakery in the 20th century, the lucrative art scheme by husband-wife duo Margaret and Walter Keane, in which the former created immensely popular paintings of children with massive eyes while her husband took the credit for it. 

Even more fitting is that the film is scripted by Larry Karazsewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriting team who penned Ed Wood, which is arguably Burton's best movie. But while I was intrigued by the story and never once found the film boring, it comes across as a lackluster effort on both Burton's and the writers' parts. While Ed Wood was meticulous in its rendering of the artistic process while also generating an astounding amount of real emotion, Big Eyes for the most part sidesteps Margaret Keane's artistic undertakings and motivations while also struggling to make us feel anything for its two central characters. 

Instead the writers settle for a more standard bio checklist approach, rushing through the events of the Keane story with just enough information to tell us where we are and what's happening, but not nearly enough to give the film any real sense of psychological complexity. For example, it gives us a picture of Walter Keane as a pathological liar, a man who doesn't just lie about his wife's paintings, but about life in general (he tricks Margaret into thinking that he too is a painter, when in fact he's just taken another artist's work and colored over the name in the bottom corner). He's created a system wherein the only way he can reach success is through fakery, and yet the movie never really investigates how he really feels about this, instead allowing Christophe Waltz to scenery chew his way through the performance (this is one of his worst pieces of acting in my mind, relying on his trademark loopy villainy at the expense of any emotional nuance--while previous big roles of his didn't demand any real complexity, here I think the film would have benefited if it attempted in some detail to capture a sense of inner-torment inside him). 

As for Margaret, she's taciturn and compliant for most of the picture, and while Amy Adams builds her performance more around facial expression than dialogue (it's good acting on her part; not many actors can use their mouth and eyes to communicate such moral discomfort), the stark contrast with Waltz's overblown characterization of her husband simply feels awkward. When they're acting together, the disproportion of their methods-too little versus too much-makes the dramatic weight of their entire relationship fizzle. But even when she's not with her husband the film doesn't afford Margaret much chance to come alive as a character. When her daughter finds out about the painting scheme for example, the film skips a detailed mother-daughter confrontation in order to keep the story moving. It quickly rushes the two of them off to Hawaii after Walter becomes a drunken threat to their safety, and while it's there that Margaret is finally free, it doesn't try to capture her new state of mind in any detailed way. At this point it seems the film is so eager to end that we get a rushed intervention from some Jehovah's Witnesses preaching the importance of honesty, a comic trial scene between the Keanes, and, to settle things once and for all, a paint-off between the estranged couple to show who the really artist is. 

I don't blame Burton much for the film's shortcomings, but at the same time I question his investment in these characters. He sticks very closely to the shooting script (though there is a nice Burtonic touch when we see Margaret wander through a supermarket and everyone has her trademark eyes, looking downright creepy) when it could have used significant alterations. I wanted something weird and wonderful and what I got seemed plain uninspired. Burton's visual sensibility remains unique, with everything bright and colorful in ways that echo Edward Scissorhands. But you get the feel, as you do with so many of his 21st century films, that at some point he just sort of stopped caring. 

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