Two decades is a long time between movies that show a director at his best, and fans of Tim Burton have wondered since 1994—when his one undisputed masterpiece “Ed Wood” was released—whether he’d pretty much lost his touch. Yes, he’d been the force behind some wickedly amusing animated films—“The Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie”—but his live-action pictures (with the exception of “Sweeney Todd”) have been a very mixed bag, more interesting for their visuals than for their overall quality. The streak is finally broken with “Big Eyes,” which in many respects returns to the “Ed Wood” template as a quirky biographically-based tale told with genuine affection as well as Burton’s lavish style (something that may derive not only from Burton’s preferences but by the renewed collaboration with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who also penned “Wood”).
The subject this time around is another artist—Wood certainly thought of himself as such, however delusional he might have been: painter Margaret Keane, played by Amy Adams. Her pictures of sad, soulful urchins with huge, beseeching eyes became a pop phenomenon in the early sixties. But they brought her no recognition, because they weren’t marketed as her work. Her second husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), a real-estate man and wannabe artist who’d befriended her when she fled with her daughter to San Francisco to escape an unhappy marriage, took credit for the pieces and proved a genius at promoting them—and himself.
The movie is, of course, designed as a proto-feminist fable—Walter argued that the paintings would never be taken seriously if it was revealed they were the work of a woman, and eventually Margaret fled to Hawaii, divorced Keane, sued him for slander when he continued to claim the work as his own, and was awarded damages in a courtroom showdown in which the judge ordered the litigants to produce paintings in the Keane style and only Margaret could do so. And Adams is very good at projecting Margaret’s combination of determination and submissiveness, fragility and backbone. She also looks wonderful in the fashions of the sixties, sporting a hairdo from the period that seems almost sculpted in its Grace Kelly perfection.
But as good as Adams is, it’s really Waltz who carries the picture. He’ll probably be pilloried by some for a performance that’s defiantly over-the-top from the get-go and only ratchets up as the film proceeds, ending in a wonderfully farcical exhibition in court, where he eagerly embraces the opportunity to serve as his own lawyer. Elsewhere, however, he positively seethes with indignation when “his” work is lambasted as kitsch by the New York Times’ effete critic (deliciously pompous Terence Stamp) and smiles triumphantly at the neighborhood gallery owner (suitably smarmy Jason Schwartzman) who’s previously dismissed it; and his domestic tirades against Margaret and her perceptive daughter Jane (played at first by Delaney Raye and then by Madeleine Arthur) are positively frightening.
Many viewers complained about Johnny Depp’s flamboyance in “Ed Wood,” too, but it embodied a degree of obsession, crossed with sheer showmanship, whose maniacal intensity was essential to making the narrative work. Waltz accomplishes a similar feat here. He gives Walter the bravado the character needs—and more—but also captures the burning lust for talent he doesn’t possess that explains his need to claim his wife’s work for himself, even to the extent of self-deception. It takes courage to throw caution to the wind as Waltz does here, and it pays off for him and Burton.
“Big Eyes” has another strong point in its physical production, which indulges Burton’s taste for candy-colored visuals by taking a Ross Hunter sixties style up a notch. Rick Heinrichs’ production design, the art direction supervised by Chris August, Shane Vieau’s set decoration and Colleen Atwood’s costumes, all set off by Bruno Delbonnel’s gleaming cinematography, together give the story a fairytale feel that’s further accentuated by regular collaborator Danny Elfman’s spry score.
There is one significant flaw in the picture, though, and that’s the framing device that tells the story via narration by Dick Nolan (Danny Huston), a San Francisco gossip columnist who was instrumental in pushing the Keane juggernaut after Walter had managed to persuade Enrico Banducci (Jon Polito), owner of the hungry I, to exhibit “his” paintings in a hallway of the night spot. Perhaps it was thought impossible to fit all the necessary exposition into the script without it, but even so much of Huston’s recitation consists of banal, obvious observations.
That’s not enough to sink a movie that represents a solid return to form for Burton, even if it never attains the dizzying heights of “Ed Wood.”