Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review: "Big Eyes"

Director: Tim Burton
Runtime: 104 minutes

Self-conscious weirdness is in short supply in Big Eyes, which turns out to be for the best for director Tim Burton. After several unwieldy, big-budget extravagazas that cheapened the director's visual quirks, Burton has found his way back to his roots with this telling of the story of artist Margaret Keane. Reunited with Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton's latest is a beautiful and (relatively) restrained effort that's also a much-needed return to form, albeit in a minor key.

The story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her grandstanding husband Walter (Christoph Waltz, at his Christoph Waltz-iest) is perfect fodder for writing duo Alexander and Karaszewski. The pair have made a career of investigating the odd lives of artistic outliers, including Z-grade director Ed Wood and pornographer Larry Flynt (The People vs. Larry Flynt). Margaret Keane isn't nearly as dynamic or eccentric a figure, but her story is one that lines up perfectly with the two writers' interests. In the early 60s, after fleeing an abusive first marriage, Margaret moves to San Francisco to try and make her way as a painter. Her signature is that she paints children with massive eyes. She catches the eye of Walter, a fellow artist, who quickly marries her to prevent Margaret's ex-husband from getting custody of her daughter.

Though Margaret's friend Dee Ann (Krysten Ritter) has her doubts about Walter, Margaret sees him as a blessing. That is, until her paintings start to sell and Walter takes sole credit for them. At first, Margaret can't really complain that much. The paintings sell increasingly well, to the point where celebrities like Joan Crawford and Natalie Wood begin to own them. Walter doesn't just sell the paintings. He sells pictures and posters and postcards of the paintings, creating one of the first kitsch empires of the 20th century art world. Old guard art critics, like The New York Times' John Canaday (Terrence Stamp), treat the paintings with contempt, but money continues to pour in for the Keanes.

Shut away in her studio and churning out paintings for Walter to take credit for, Adams' Margaret has an odd kinship with fellow Burton protagonist Edward Scissorhands. Though her life is far more comfortable, she still lives in a state of isolation, her true identity hidden from everyone except her husband, who convinces her that their entire empire will collapse if she ever takes the credit she deserves (according to Walter, people don't buy "lady art").

Regardless of the critical reception that greeted Keane's work, Burton and the writers have made sure to treat Margaret's story with sincerity. Kitsch craze or not, the big-eyed paintings were a crucial part of Margaret's life, and the film avoids turning her work into a punchline. Big Eyes has been directed with a light touch, but that doesn't mean that Burton is treating the material as disposable. 

Burton's work behind the camera is quite dynamic, which compensates for the spotty aspects of Alexander and Karaszewski's writing. Big Eyes doesn't showcase the director or the writers at their finest, but the flaws entirely stem from the screenplay. Alexander and Karaszewski researched Keane's life extensively, but they have missed getting into the heart of her as an artist and a mother. Margaret repeatedly mentions that the big eyed paintings are a part of her, but her reason for focusing so intensely on the eyes is glossed over in a single line of dialogue. Unfortunately, Walter's fake reason for the paintings (they're the faces of children ravaged by WW2!) is more convincing that Margaret's exclamations that the art is part of her very being. Several flashes of real people with distorted eyes do little to get further into Margaret's head. Instead, they feel like superfluous, "weird" moments that exist to remind you that yes, this is a Tim Burton movie.

As a viewing experience, however, Big Eyes is the easiest Burton film to watch in years. Shot and decorated with super-saturated colors, the whole film is arrestingly beautiful in a way that captures early 60s pop art without shoving the style down the viewer's throat. Burton's films have always included lush visuals, but unlike the garish designs of his Alice in Wonderland, Big Eyes' beauty comes across as genuine and purposeful. The director's spritely pacing keeps the story afloat and prevents the story from dragging. Even in Burton's best work, pacing has not been his strong suit. Refreshingly, Big Eyes hops and skips through its story, never wallowing in Margaret's ethical dilemma.

Of the cast, Adams proves to be the most ideal fit for Burton's vision. While this is not a performance of extraordinary depth, it captures Keane's loneliness, confusion, and fear with great sensitivity. The characters in Big Eyes are as cartoony as Keane's paintings, but Adams grounds the story with a palpable humanity. Waltz, meanwhile, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. His increasingly unhinged Walter runs amok throughout the movie, most notably in the climactic courtroom scene where Walter and Margaret battle for credit of the paintings. Had the film striven for a toned down, intimate approach, Waltz's work would have been horribly mis-judged. Instead, he's a nice counterweight to Adams' emotional modesty. Meanwhile, the supporting players, including Stamp, Krysten Ritter, and Jason Schwartzman, are sadly underused. 

When we think of artists who deserve biopics, we think of the masters. December will also see the opening of Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, about an artist held in far higher esteem than Margaret Keane ever will be. In a sense, Keane's work would seem unworthy of a film were it not for the incredible story revolving around the battle for authorship. Schwartzman's gallery owner, at one point, is baffled that anyone would even want credit for the big eye paintings. Yet one of Walter's points in the movie, despite the context, rings true. Who cares about the disdainful comments from the highbrow art community. The paintings are popular because, kitsch craze or not, they've made an impact on people, no matter how shallow. Even the most mass-produced art started somewhere personal, and has a story to be told. 

Grade: B-

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