The anarchic id of late-20th-century Hollywood with a funhouse of singular films to prove it, Tim Burton hasn’t, alas, been regarded with much favor of late. Indifferent to the notion of growing up, he’s become the whipping boy for critics who’ve mistaken an auteur’s variations on a theme for lazy career repetition. Yet respectability has never been Burton’s mandate, and even recent work like 2012’s flop Dark Shadows—a misunderstood oddity that rekindled his tonally schizoid earlier stuff—has demonstrated nothing if not an artist determined to amuse himself first and critics later. Predictably, the news that Burton was to direct a low-key biopic from the writers of Ed Wood was met with relief from those pining for the mythical “return to form,” or just hoping he’d try something different, lest he deliver another refraction of tacky pop cinema that doesn’t align with prevailing critical tastes.
Well, be careful what you wish for. Big Eyes is Burton’s most mature work since the last time he got mistaken for an Oscar-season hack, 2003’s “movie for people that don’t really like Tim Burton movies,” Big Fish. Unsurprisingly, it’s also his most boring. Hard as it is to imagine, the guy who once got fired from Disney, had Michelle Pfeiffer swallow a live bird, and gleefully vaporized the human race has made a picture prefaced by a “based on a true story” banality (and in ugly typeface, at that), one in which a goddamned postscript—the bane of the by-the-template biopic—dutifully informs its audience that everyone went on to live happily ever after or duly got their comeuppance. It’s entirely respectable, and entirely forgettable.
Which isn’t to suggest that Burton has made a film to appease critics or Academy voters. Indeed, both material and filmmaker seem in perfect synch, and there’s no doubt everything about Big Eyes is lovingly crafted. The film recounts the improbable artistic fraud behind the Keane paintings—depictions of haunted, saucer-eyed kids that were everywhere in the ’50s and ’60s—art created in secret by the quiet, gifted Margaret (Amy Adams) and sold to the world as the work of her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), a talentless opportunist with a flamboyant knack for salesmanship. Dismissed here by an art critic as “creepy, maudlin, and amateurish,” it’s easy to see the affinity Burton shared with Keane’s so-called “kitsch,” just as he did the weirdo passion of Ed Wood—two possible ghosts of his own creative future. But where screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski usually excel at bringing cultural oddballs to life—be it Wood, Larry Flynt, or Andy Kaufman—they haven’t managed to work their magic on the Keanes.
Likewise, the material hasn’t challenged Burton’s imagination in the manner that made their collaboration on Ed Wood so memorable. Despite everyone’s obvious emotional connection to the story, Big Eyes is a curiously muted piece that goes about its business in a disturbingly rote fashion. The inherent tension between art and commerce, between what’s acceptable to arbiters of taste and that which transcends such snobbery, is rich stuff that Burton might have sunk his fangs deep into, but the film is only peripherally interested in those ideas—represented here by tart, fleeting cameos by the snooty likes of Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman. The opportunity to redress the low (cultural) tourism of Woody Allen—who ridiculed Keane’s work in Sleeper—is mostly missed; there’s nothing here as pointed, say, as Burton’s impish mockery of modern art tastes in Beetlejuice.
The narrative instead pivots heavily on the frankly less interesting treachery perpetrated by Walter Keane—less interesting in the sense that the duel of the Keanes barely amounts to a whimpered war of attrition, one that culminates in that most hoary of biopic denouements, the courtroom showdown. That’s a shame, because this could’ve been Burton’s “women’s picture,” but Margaret comes across far too passively to engage much interest. Might it simply be that, talented though she was, Keane wasn’t a terribly fascinating subject to essay?
Big Eyes is moreover a function of Walter, played by Waltz with wild, hammy gesticulation that feels oblivious to the rest of the film soldiering on around him. At one point, he quite literally acts opposite himself, his scene-hogging antics in the film taken to their natural, ludicrous extreme. (It’s been a bad year for Waltz performances, ironically at the hands of two filmmakers—Burton and Terry Gilliam—usually capable of generating unusual turns from established stars.)
Big Eyes isn’t a bad picture, by any means. It’s something worse, particularly given the talent involved—an unremarkable one. Unable to transcend the familiar beats of the biopic, what redeeming features the film possesses are largely formal. Burton’s undiminished eye for detail, coupled with Bruno Delbonnel’s candy-coated cinematography and Colleen Atwood’s peerless costumes, make for a pretty postcard of a picture; a vibrant confection that practically functions as a visual prequel to the eclectic kitsch of Edward Scissorhands.
It’s telling, though, that Big Eyes is most alive when Burton is doodling in the margins: a fantasy supermarket sequence in which Margaret imagines a world overrun by her spooky kids hints at the kind of fun the movie could have been had the director been liberated from the strictures of the true story narrative. The best scene in the film involves a brief, wordless exchange between Margaret and her quizzical poodle—a grace note of simple, effortless Burton vintage, and a reminder that the mischievous artist of yore is still in there somewhere.