Starring: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad), Danny Huston (The Aviator), Jason Schwartzman (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Terence Stamp (Superman II)
Director: Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands)
Writers: Scott Alexander & Larry Karazewski (Ed Wood)
Runtime: 1 hour 46 minutes
Release Date: 25 December (US), 26 December (UK)
Remember when Tim Burton’s filmography was, well, not so weird? Granted, Burton’s never really made anything completely grounded in reality, but there was a time when not everything he touched had to have pale faces, German Expressionist art design, a kooky score with a child choir and the presence of Johnny Depp. Big Eyes is Burton’s return to his slightly less eccentric days and, in many ways, it’s a spiritual successor to Ed Wood (which, if I haven’t mention before on this blog, is my all-time favourite film). Not only does it have the same directing and writing team, but both are also period piece biopic dramadies about an unappreciated artist. Does Burton have the chops to return to more innocent times and tell a realistic tale, or has he spent far too much time in Wonderland to connect with us mortals anymore?
At its core, Big Eyes is essentially about creative expression and its importance to art and artists. Margaret (Adams) is an artist who paints her peculiar portraits in order to express herself. Walter (Waltz) sees the beauty in art, but doesn’t really get the meaning behind it and is more interested in cashing in. It’s a clash of ideals more than simple ownership, and it’s that conflict that keeps Big Eyes alive and interesting. The story is structured in more of an episodic way rather than as a flowing narrative, often relying on large time jumps to get to the juicier action, which does unfortunately make the pacing feel a little stop-start. The film does also sometimes feel a little overstretched even with its modest runtime, but I wouldn’t say I was ever bored. In terms of tonal balance, it’s definitely more of a drama but the comedy does shine through consistently, especially in the final courtroom scenes when the ridiculousness of the situation really comes to light. However, as good as the third act is, I thought the ending was a little abrupt and lacked payoff. After spending three quarters of the film watching this woman living this lie under threat, she finally breaks free…and then the whole thing is satisfyingly resolved but at an alarmingly fast pace that makes the conclusion lose a bit of impact. It’s certainly an entertaining story and one that hits the key beats well, but I think it just needed a bigger kick at the end to really drive it home.
On Burton’s merits, Big Eyes is a fine enough film, but it’s the efforts of Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz that really stands out. Adams’ Margaret may be weak-willed and frightened at first, but there is always that strong moral centre shining throughout that keeps us on her side. Sure, you may want to yell “leave this bastard already” at her several times throughout, but I feel that’s kind of the point and it makes the moment when she finally does that much more powerful. It’s a more subtle and dainty performance from Adams, one that contrasts well with the more slimy Walter. However, Waltz does a great job of not portraying the man as a complete monster from the start; much like how Margaret is swept up by his initial charm, so are we. But when he turns from man of romance to scheming money-grubber to downright despicable, Waltz transforms at the snap of a finger without making a big deal of it and the real power of his performance kicks in. But whether delightful or vicious, Waltz also always manages to inject humour into the character; his final scenes in particular are full of comedy gold as his confidence and lies begin to cause his downfall. His and Adams’ chemistry is fantastic whether deep in love or deep in argument, and their friction is what really makes Big Eyes work especially in those final moments. The rest of the cast is fun though relatively unimportant; Jason Schwartzman has some funny lines as a rival art dealer, and Terence Stamp channels Peter O’Toole’s performance in Ratatouille as a snobby critic who gets into an entertaining conflict with Waltz.
Burton’s pulling back of the gothic is certainly most obvious in the film’s presentation in what is easily the most normal looking movie in his catalogue. That’s not to say it’s bad though, as the work on display here is still excellent and Burtony enough to be recognisably his. He has done an excellent job of mimicking the look and feel of the 50s and 60s not just the authentic production design and costumes, but also through simple but elegant cinematography. Though shot digitally, it retains a vintage look through the use of camera set-ups, lighting and colour grading; it looks so good that I would have thought it was shot in film otherwise. In a similar tonal dampening, Danny Elfman’s score is far more subdued that his usual collaborations with Burton, creating music that is far more fitting to the story’s tone and period setting.
Big Eyes is a welcome return to more conventional filmmaking for Tim Burton, and it’s great to see he hasn’t fully lost touch with reality. Adams and Waltz’s performances ultimately overshadow Burton in terms of wow factor, but that’s not to demean his solid efforts here. The story is inspiring and well-told, though I think it just needed a little more emotional impact to reach those Ed Wood levels of heart and pathos. It’s certainly worth a watch for both Tim Burton fans and those interested in the arts, and I’d certainly prefer to see more films like this from Burton rather than see him return to his old, worn-out habits.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10