Jan 15, 2015

Big Eyes [12A]

Dir: Tim Burton
In recent years watching Tim Burton's films, especially his live action work, has been more likely to be frustrating than fun.  The quirky eye that was novel in his early films became a crutch, as did the frequent presence of his muses, his partner Helena Bonham-Carter and his friend and collaborator Johnny Depp.  Depp, in particular, did amazing work in his early collaborations with Burton, but what was quirksome stagnated and became simply irksome, approaching self-parody.

Big Eyes, then, is in many ways just what the doctor ordered for Burton's live action work.  It reunites him with Ed Wood writers and offbeat biopic specialists Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and removes the twin crutches of Bonham-Carter and Depp.

The film tells the story of Margaret and Walter Keane.  Margaret was the artist behind the paintings of big eyed children which became fashionable in the 60's and were apparently some of the first paintings to be printed and sold to the masses as posters, rather than just to collectors.  Walter, by contrast, claimed to be a painter of landscapes, but was in reality a fraudster.  He convinced his wife to let him take credit for the big eyed children, manipulating her for years.

For the most part, Big Eyes is a sedately shot film, its visual identity coming less from the Burton playbook than it does from the pastel kitsch of the decade between the late 50's and late 60's.  There are, however, a few moments that fit more easily in to Burton's trademark look, be it the impossibly green rolling hills that recall Alice in Wonderland as Margaret drives past them, while leaving her first husband in the film's opening sequence or the surreal sequence of big eyed people staring at her in the supermarket.  However, here these excursions to Burtonville don't feel, as they have lately, like the director running out of ideas and resorting to self-plagarism.

Another thing that seems to refresh Burton somewhat is the presence of Amy Adams.  She's perfectly cast as Keane, looking remarkably like the archive pictures shown with the film's closing captions.  She gives Margaret a delicacy and naiveté that, without making her seem stupid, allow you to believe how she is taken in by the flamboyant Walter.  It's also an interesting quirk of casting that Adams has the sort of wide, open eyes that, as well as letting us see something of what her characters are thinking and feeling, suggest that - at least in the film's reality - Keane's art might have begun as an exaggerated self-portrait.

Adams' performance here is small; detailed but simple, but she has shown in films as varied as Junebug, Enchanted and American Hustle that she can also give big performances that nevertheless ring true.  This doesn't seem to be the case with Christoph Waltz, who plays Walter.  

Waltz came to prominence playing the cheerfully evil Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.  That performance was a surprise, a breath of fresh air in a genre that can be rather po-faced and encourage nothing more nuanced than a straightforward officiousness.  Unfortunately, every time I've seen Waltz since he's given basically that same performance.  Waltz' performance never stops seeming actorly.  As Walter he has an energy bordering on mania, delivered with the grinning hammery of a slimy, but very effective, salesman.  This may be appropriate to Walter Keane's real character and might work better if we felt it was Walter who is the one putting on this performance.  Unfortunately, because Waltz has played these beats before, because you can see Landa and Dr King Schultz in what he does here, that distinction falls down and it ends up being Christoph Waltz we see acting, not Walter Keane.

The supporting cast sometimes give Big Eyes more of the feel of a Coen Brothers than a Tim Burton film.  Many players drop in for one or two scenes, most of them at least slightly tongue in cheek.  Krysten Ritter (herself big eyed enough to be an anime character) has a slight part as a free spirited friend of Margaret's, but makes the best of limited screen time.  Erring more on the comic side are Jason Schwartzman; dry and droll as a pretentious gallery owner and Terrence Stamp as an art critic who dismisses Margaret's art as pure kitsch (he's got a point).  Stamp has a lot of fun as the purse-lipped and, the film would seem to suggest, over-serious critic, but he also gets stuck in one of the film's worst scenes as Waltz - hamming to high heaven - berates him for a bad review of 'his' latest painting.

Alexander and Karaszewski's screenplay is played straighter than their Ed Wood or People Vs Larry Flynt work, it's also pretty straightforward biopic box ticking at times, especially in the very minor acknowledgement it gives Margaret's apparently short lived issues with alcohol.  That said, both Margaret and Walter are well drawn (the problems when it comes to Walter are with the performance and with Burton's direction of it) and the dialogue is good, often quite funny.

Big Eyes finds Tim Burton closer to top form than he has been in live action for two decades.  It's certainly not perfect, and the fact that one of the central performances is the film's biggest issue means I can't quite wholeheartedly recommend it, but it's often fun, well played by most of the cast and Amy Adams elevates even its weakest moments.  Hopefully Burton can build on this and deliver something truly great again.

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