Tim Burton is one of those directors that I’ve soured on as time has gone by. It’s not that I’ve outgrown him or his work; I still love Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies and I’m even a defender of Sweeney Todd. It’s just that lately, the majority of his work has just, well, sucked.
Oh don’t look at me like that. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a mess and a half, Dark Shadows is incredibly boring and Alice in Wonderland is, to coin a phrase, completely f**king terrible. But I was pretty excited about this one. An attempt by Burton to return to the same creative period that brought us Ed Wood (including the same writers)? Yeah, I’m in.
The plot, based on a pretty interesting true story, is devoted to Margaret Keane (Amy Adams). As the film begins, she leaves an unhappy marriage to move to San Fransisco, seeking a better life for herself and her daughter. Without any marketable skills, other than painting, she begins trying to sell her paintings of big eyed waifs for money, and catches the eye of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz).
Walter, it turns out, is an aspiring artist himself, and sees a lot of potential in Margaret’s paintings. But a mix up leads him to claim he’s the one painting them, and forces Margaret to lie about it, even as they get married (so Margaret can retain custody of her daughter) and the paintings become a million dollar industry.
Finding out that Burton is a collector of Keane paintings (and at one point commissioned Margaret to do a painting of Lisa Marie) makes perfect sense to me. His passion for the subject shows through, in how much of the film is devoted to loving shots of the artwork in question. I’d normally complain, but it’s clear that this passion helps the movie be as good as it is. It helps the movie be engaging and funny, even when it’s semi-serious.
Burton still knows how to visually tell a story, and while the movie does feel like it’s straining to feel Burton-esque (like a couple minor diversions with Keane eyes imposed on real life) it never gets in the way of the story. In fact, it’s probably the least Burton-esque of his films since Big Fish.
But the most important element in the movie is the script. It’s the first Tim Burton script in a long while, years even, that has a recognizably human story at it’s center. As Burton’s visuals have gotten more outlandish, his characters have gotten harder and harder to relate to, to the point where I didn’t care at all about a single character in Dark Shadows.
Big Eyes on the other hand, has some very well written interplay and character growth. I find it easy to get while Margaret feels back into a corner by Walter’s lies, and why she feels that no one in the 50s will buy a woman’s artwork. The time spent building the time period and setting is far from wasted, as it keeps us from ever forgetting how hard it is for Margaret, and how desperate she is to be taken seriously.
This might not be the hardest performance of Adams’ career (The Master is pretty hard to top) but it’s certainly not easy, as she has much of the movie riding on her. It’s also the first time Burton has had a female lead (alright, alright, Alice but let’s be honest; Alice was not even close to the main focus of that movie) and both of them handle it pretty well. Adams plays the period appropriate repression and quietness without ever making her character seem less engaging.
Waltz’s performance is a little more in his wheelhouse, but he does pretty well with it. He’s gotten exceptionally good at playing slimy con man types, but the more interesting aspect this time around is how out of control of the situation he is. His character is 100 percent dependent on Margaret and a good portion of his arc is him trying to regain control. I don’t want to spend too much time on him, since how dark his arc gets is a pretty major spoiler.
If there is a flaw that keeps it from being as good as it’s thematic predecessor Ed Wood, it’s that one of the central relationships, the one between Margaret and her daughter, feels underdeveloped. Her daughter is pretty tertiary until about the midpoint, although that could be because the actress they got to play her when she’s very young is terrible.
Aside from that, it’s got a couple flaws. The main one is that the thematic underpinning (that of the relationship between kitsch and art) is also underutilized, although a couple minor nods to Warhol are welcome. Also, there’s a reporter character who hangs around the entire movie, and even narrates sections of it, but doesn’t seem to add anything to the proceedings, but that’s just nitpicking.
I suppose it’s a little unfair to you, my audience, to review this less than a week after naming it the 10th best film of 2014, but whatever. You knew I loved this, and you should too. It’s not quite the best movie of the year, but it’s a damn fine movie of this year, and that’s worth more than a little.
Elessar is a 24 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to reiterate his distaste for Alice in Wonderland. S**t sucks yo.
– easily Burton’s most engaging and entertaining film in years
– great performance from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz
– unique historical story
– doesn’t use it’s themes as well as it could
– young child actress is TERRIBLE