REVIEW: Big Eyes

27 12 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows“) is accustomed to working on canvases larger than life.  But in his latest directorial outing “Big Eyes,” he has a hard time creating an environment that feels true to life.  The film is the rare Burton picture not set in any realm of fantasy or imagination, and he feels uncomfortable in the domain of average human beings.

His response to every question that arose in production, it seems, was to opt for exaggeration.  “Big Eyes” has the tense spousal dynamic of “The Color Purple” where the exploitation in the marriage is artistic rather than sexual.  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) aspires to be a renowned and revered artist yet cannot achieve such status with his own paintings.  Thus, he claims the resonantly kitschy big-eyed paintings of his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) for his own and forces her into a glorified form of indentured servitude.

Burton uses a narrator to constantly remind the audience that this all happened “back then” as if the whole thing were some kind of fairy tale.  Yet “Big Eyes,” sadly, derives its strength from the nagging sensation that this could just as easily be happening in 2014.  The kind of cultural diminution and symbolic rape committed in the film is still endemic in today’s society, but Burton seems content with hermetically sealing it in some kind of dolled-up past.

Amy Adams in Big Eyes

The acting style only amplifies this disconnect from contemporary relevance.  Waltz plays Walter with such an over-the-top energy that his performance nearly departs reality altogether.  He becomes so absurd that he assumes the role of a cartoon villain, which actually makes him fit quite well in the overblown storybook world of “Big Eyes.”  The best acting is not always the most acting, and had Waltz done less, he might have saved this melodrama from turning into a soap opera.

Meanwhile, Adams plays Margaret Keane at diminished capacity.  She appears to come with only two settings: helpless basket case or empowered feminist.  Considering the stunning shading she brought to Sydney Prosser in “American Hustle” and the tremendous texture she endowed to Charlene in “The Fighter,” this feels like a distinct letdown.  Perhaps her massive mop of a blonde wig impeded Adams’ normal process that leads to deeply humane, moving characterizations.

“Big Eyes” does manage to make a few compelling points about art worlds, although that is not difficult to achieve in a movie which explicitly concerns art.  Even before Warhol, Walter Keane was a master of bringing his art to market with a mixture of savvy business strategy, manipulation of mechanical reproducibility, navigation around the cultural gatekeepers, and an unabashed lack of subtlety.

Though Burton realizes this side of the story nicely, he could have done so much more with this remarkable true-life tale.  The impression left at the end is not of this small commentary made but rather of larger opportunities squandered.  C+2stars



2 responses

27 12 2014

Interesting to see your opinion of Adams’s performance, as I’ve heard from others that it’s fantastic. I’ll see for myself in a few days. Great review!

29 12 2014

I was as shocked as anyone – I think Adams is one of the most versatile and talented actresses working today, so seeing her do anything less than Oscar-level probably feels exceptionally disappointing.

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