Movie a Day Blog remains a die-hard Tim Burton fan, however uneven his recent work has been. Burton has always possessed a fully cinematic imagination, from his very first animated short VINCENT (1982), made while he was a student at CalArts, to his special effects extravaganza (and worldwide boxoffice hit) ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010).
But lately his films have seemed distracted, big subjects reduced to small stories. This is certainly true of BIG EYES (2014, Theatrical), a movie that has tremendous potential that is wasted by miscasting and ill-defined character development.
As a child of the 1950s, I have vivid memories of the startling Keane paintings of that era: small children with enormous saucer eyes, often with a tear trickling out of one. I had no idea of or interest in the artist: the work seemed the embodiment of American kitsch, a judgment justified by the omnipresence of Keane posters and prints in the 1950s and 60s.
It turns out there’s a fascinating story of artistic misrepresentation, manipulation and fraud behind the Keane portraits, and the potential for BIG EYES seemed as huge as the orbs in its title.
However, Burton’s screenwriters, the veterans Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (ED WOOD, 1994), let him and the audience down by the one-dimensional portrayals of the two principal characters, the actual artist Margaret Keane, played realistically by Amy Adams, and her hustler husband, who appropriates credit for the paintings when he doesn’t even know how to pick up a brush, played in an over-the-top style by Oscar-winner Christophe Waltz from the first frame to the final one.
Waltz, whose jaw is set in an obnoxious manner from the initial time we meet him, is an irredeemable creep, and it makes no sense why his talented wife endured his lies and schemes for so long. BIG EYES opens with Adams and her daughter resolutely walking out of a disastrous first marriage, so we know she has the gumption to strike out on her own as a single parent.
Why, for God’s sake, she allows Waltz to take credit for her work, give interviews and be feted as a great artist, ultimately makes no sense given the character Burton and Adams have established at the beginning of the film. And, surprisingly for a Tim Burton film, BIG EYES gives us no insight into Margaret’s artisitic inspiration. There must have been deep emotional reasons for her consistent portrayals of waif-like, abandoned-looking innocent children, who seem as if they are about to be or just have been physically or sexually abused, but the artist’s motivations are never even alluded to, let alone discussed.
Waltz, who was so outstanding in the two Quentin Tarantino films that won him Best Supporting Actor Oscars, INGLORIOUIS BASTERDS (2009) and DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012), seems totally unmoored in this role. His character is such an apparent charlatan, insincere and narcissistic to an extreme, that it makes no sense anyone would take him seriously as anything other than the hustler he was. You have to give the real Walter Keane some credit: he made his wife’s paintings a global phenomenon, and himself a fortune in the process.
It takes until the end of the movie for Adams’ character to come to her senses and sue her ex-husband, and the trial sequence that occupies most of the third act of BIG EYES is the most unsatisfying part of the film. Clearly coming under the category of truth is stranger than fiction, the real Walter Keane decided to act as his own attorney, despite having as little legal training as he did artistic craftsmanship.
So the trial is a total and complete farce, with Waltz dashing back and forth between the counsel’s table and the witness box, and here BIG EYES becomes farcical itself. Long gone is any insight into Adams’ character, either as a woman or an artist, and the role of their only daughter is also given short shrift.
Ultimately BIG EYES becomes an excuse for Waltz to vamp incessantly, and while the usual Burton touches are present and accounted for (great production design, cinematography and costuming), they add up to little. There is a wonderful unnerving sequence where Adams goes to the grocery store, and every customer and checkout girl has huge, liquid Keane eyes. But this thread is never picked up again, the the detriment of BIG EYES.
I’m not sure a film about a kitsch artist such as Keane could have ever yielded a movie with any depth beyond the paintings of the artist herself, but BIG EYES doesn’t seem to even try very hard. Burton is such a natural filmmaker that he should stick to fiction rather than fact dressed up in overstuffed fictional clothes.