Tim Burton’s recent track record has been uneven. Although Alice in Wonderland was his biggest hit to date, it met with mixed reviews at best, and 2012’s Dark Shadows was a critical dud and financial letdown (though I think it’s better than its reputation suggests), while the utterly delightful Frankenweenie, despite good reviews (and an Oscar nomination), saw only modest returns.
So he made his first non-fantasy/horror film in 20 years, and arguably his most down-to-earth film yet. And…well, the modestly positive reviews and the modest box-office are rather fitting. Because this is a modestly good film, but to my mind less rewarding than a more characteristic effort like Dark Shadows, because it never quite catches fire. The actors do their damnedest, the production values are not lacking, and there are some fine moments…but there’s a compromised feel to it, and a crucial moment doesn’t quite come off, leaving the whole film on thematically shaky ground.
The story is a true one. Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), an aspiring artist in the 50s, leaves her unhappy marriage with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye; later Madeleine Arthur) in tow, and struggles to find work to support them; the misogynist nature of 50s society has the deck stacked against her. One day, trying to sell her work at an art fair, she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who mostly paints Parisian street scenes. He immediately becomes enamored of her, and she, welcoming his support (especially in the face of a custody battle), accepts his offer of marriage.
Looking for a place to exhibit their wares, Walter talks the manager of the hungry i, Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito) into putting the paintings on his club’s walls; he relegates them to the hallway by the bathrooms. After one of Margaret’s paintings catches a patron’s eye, Walter claims to have painted it; when he reveals this to Margaret, she tells him not to do it again. But when he and Banducci publicly brawl over his placement of the paintings, they make the news and interest in the paintings–especially Margaret’s paintings of children with enormous, sad eyes–skyrockets.
Walter, a skilled salesman, again takes the credit for the paintings. Margaret objects, but Walter argues…well, here’s that crucial moment I was talking about. Later in the film, Margaret (now fully participating in the ruse), says that her “own” works (which do not feature the “big eyes”) are not publicly sold because people don’t buy “lady art”. But in the moment, I can’t remember if that was Walter’s argument, or if he just didn’t want to lose face, or if his argument was that his superior salesmanship made his taking credit more reasonable. (He later posits that, since he and Margaret will be sharing the money from the paintings’ sales anyway, she has no real cause to complain.)
In any case, this moment feels vague and unclear, and while that may have been intentional–Margaret buckling to pressure in a tense moment, a reflection of the way irrational moments sometimes arise from confused circumstances–it puts the rest of the film on shaky ground. Because Margaret’s reasons for accepting the ruse to begin with are not clear (and whatever they were in reality is irrelevant–though this article suggests it was mostly simple stubborn bullying on Walter’s part–what matters is how they are conveyed dramatically), the emotional coherency of the film is compromised. It’s not that I didn’t feel sorry for Margaret or disgusted at Walter’s arrogance, but the film does not pack the punch it should have.
Anyway. An Italian industrialist visiting the hungry i is intrigued by one of Margaret’s works and asks them who the artist is. After an awkward pause (during which Margaret is clearly wrestling with her conscience), Walter takes the credit and Keanemania soon begins. (Personally, had the scene ended with that pause–as it does in the trailer–I think it would have been more effective) The paintings sell faster than Margaret can paint them, and Walter hits on the idea of selling reproductions, which sell tremendously and make the Keanes fabulously wealthy. Margaret is unhappy with the arrangment, however, especially since she has to lie to Jane about the authorship of the paintings.
Which…Jane knew Margaret was painting the “big eyes”. She was the subject of at least one of them. But there’s a scene where she and Walter tell her Walter actually painted them, and later her art studio is strictly off-limits, but Jane ends up finding out, and…it’s very strange. I guess it really happened this way. But it’s hard to believe.
Anyway, Walter exploits Margaret and her work, and after a fiasco involving a painting commissioned for the 1964 World’s Fair (which is condemned by art critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp)), she discovers that Walter didn’t even paint the street scenes he initially claimed as his own. After an altercation where a drunken Walter tries to set Margaret’s studio on fire, she and Jane flee, eventually settling in Hawaii. Some time later, Walter tracks her down and, when she demands a divorce, he agrees, on the condition that she deliver another set of “big eyes”.
After reading Jehovah’s Witness literature which advocates absolute truthfulness, Margaret exposes the ruse during a radio broadcast, inspiring Walter to denounce her claims and proclaim his authorship of the paintings yet again. She sues him and the newspapers which printed his claim, and after the judge (James Saito) acquits the paper of libel (since Margaret admitted to having lied previously), Walter finds himself on trial for slander…and without counsel. Walter opts to defend himself, and does so in obnoxious fashion, behaving childishly and bullying Margaret when she takes the stand.
The judge, losing patience with the Keanes’ arguing, declares that they shall have a paint-off in the courtroom to prove who really created the “big eyes”. While Walter squirms in his seat and finally complains of a bad shoulder, Margaret produces a “big eye” and is awarded $4 million in damages. We later learn that Walter never backed down from his story and died in poverty, while Margaret lives and paints to this day (she actually appears briefly in the film).
My initial impression of Big Eyes was that it was like an HBO film–respectable, well done in most departments, edgier than network fare, but lacking the verve to make it truly cinematic. Burton’s direction has flashes of panache–a moment where Margaret starts hallucinating that everyone around her has “big eyes”, the candy-colored honeymoon in Hawaii, the absurdist trial sequence–but on the whole, the film lacks a real voice, a real sense of passion. It’s not boring, but it rarely excites.
The script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, lacks bite, and while some of the more over-the-top moments were apparently drawn from reality, too much of the script feels watered-down, and the humor (since, as the Globes say, this is a comedy) is rather soft and timid; Margaret asking if espresso is “like reefer” is about par for the course. There are exceptions–the judge’s lines in the trial sequence are pretty hilarious–but on the whole, the script lets the film down. The big moments often feel inorganic–the scene from the trailer, where Margaret tells the truth to her dog, is hampered by the fact that, in context, we are well aware of what’s going on. Had the scene kicked off the film in media res, that’d be one thing, but here it just feels weird.
I should mention the widely-criticized narration by gossip columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston). It’s certainly extraneous, but it’s used so inconsistently that I was able to forget about it. It was strange, though, especially since we’re never really sure what Dick thinks of the whole situation (other than as a means to sell papers).
The acting is good, but it doesn’t lift the film above ***. Adams and Waltz were both nominated for Globes, but I wouldn’t root for either to win. Adams was pegged early on as an Oscar contender (and maybe a frontrunner, given her 5 previous nominations), but it’s perhaps telling that she initially turned the role down; as scripted, Margaret is just not that compelling of a character. Like Marion Cotillard’s Ewa in The Immigrant, a character meant to reflect the position of a woman denied her full agency in a misogynistic world falls flat because her lack of autonomy is insufficiently dramatized.
Adams does a good job with the role, as always, but it’s not a truly memorable performance. She makes Margaret’s struggles sympathetic and her snarky shots at Walter properly snappy, but there’s just not that much to say about her work. I wish there were, and it’s a testament to Adams’ skill that she does as well as she does with the material, but her Oscar will have to wait for another year (though I would have been happy to see her win last year).
Waltz, for his part, has more to chew on; Walter’s brashness and hair-trigger temper (he tries to stab Canaday with a fork), which mask a sense of self-loathing at his inability to create art, give Waltz room to play out his classic mixture of oily charm and menace, and he’s fun to watch. It’s hard to believe that more people didn’t see through him–he’s really a slimy SOB, especially during the trial sequence, where his claim of a “sore shoulder” wouldn’t fool anyone. Still, he brings his typical panache to the role, and that counts for a fair amount.
The supporting cast is fine, though largely underused. Krysten Ritter, as a beatnik friend of Margaret’s (who tries to warn her about Walter), is lively, but she appears only fleetingly. Schwartzman, Polito, and Stamp all bring a little zing to their roles, but none of them have enough to do. Really, only Saito, as the sane judge in the midst of an insane situation, gives a truly memorable performance. His dry, yet uncynical performance proves to be one of the film’s true highlights, and I hope there are some other good performances of his to discover, or to come.
Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and Rick Heinrichs’ production design capture the 50s and 60s well; even more could have been done with the pastel colors and garish decor, but the Keane’s mansion, the honeymoon in Hawaii, and the interiors of the hungry i all please the eye (and credit is due to Colleen Atwood’s costumes). Danny Elfman’s music is not of his more memorable scores, but it wasn’t distracting¹. JC Bond’s editing suggested post-production retooling; I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a longer cut out there, possibly more satisfying–or at least more memorable–than the film we have.
It sounds like I disliked Big Eyes more than I did. It’s really not a bad film, and I was, as far as I can remember, engaged throughout. It’s flawed, but ultimately solid. I just expected a little more than that.
¹I should add–while Lana Del Rey’s song “Big Eyes” got the Globe nomination and is featured prominently in the film, I think her song “I Can Fly” (which is used over the end credits) is actually the better song. I might nominate it, especially since this is a terrible year for original songs.