I have a weird relationship with Tim Burton’s movies.
Fitting, I guess, since he’s such a particular filmmaker. And this is going to be one of those reviews where you read it and you look at the letter grade and you say, “Are you sure those match?”
When “Alice In Wonderland” came out a few years ago, I found myself getting actively angry at almost everything about the film. I hated the script. I hated the way they bent Lewis Carroll’s work. I hated the performance choices. Nothing about it worked for me, and beyond that, it irritated me. That film, of course, made well over a billion dollars around the world.
When “Mars Attacks!” came out, I thought it was wildly flawed, but also entertaining and ridiculous and packed with details that made me sort of fall for it, flaws and all. If I had to give “Mars Attacks!” a letter grade, it might not be a good one, but I own the film and I’ve seen it many times since that initial screening.
Often, I’ve noticed that when I really enjoy something that Tim Burton does, it makes other people mental and vice versa. Knowing this, I am probably not the best barometer for most people on Burton’s work. All I can do is be honest and admit that, yes, “Dark Shadows” is one of those films where I see a lot of problems with it, and they pretty much don’t matter to me because of what I enjoyed about it. I think the overall effort is endearingly ridiculous, and here’s a way to gauge your own expectations for the film: how do you feel about “Death Becomes Her”?
While the ad campaign has focused on the film’s sense of humor, the movie is not a pure comedy. The opening of the film, establishing the history of the Collins family and Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) in particular, is played fairly straight, with a heightened, stylized version of the world a pretty fair match for the outsized way that Depp attacks his role. I am not a fan of every single “quirky” Depp performance, and I’ve certainly disliked a number of his films with Burton, but here, I think he finds the right tone for Barnabas. He’s playing a sort of overheated soap opera hero, a former rogue laid low by a curse, tortured for 200 years, and uncertain how to fit into a new world when he finds himself in the ’70s suddenly.
The film certainly plays the fish-out-of-water side of Barnabas and his dislocation for laughs, but the film plays a lot of different tones from moment to moment. The film feels like they’ve taken a couple of years worth of storylines from the series and shoehorned them all into a two hour span, and while that may sound frantic, I like the way the film manages to suggest the rhythms and wackadoo invention that is part of the source material. I think the truth is fairly evident at this point that Burton is less interesting in story than mood and incident. The script by Seth Grahame-Smith and John August is busy to the point of being a blur at times, but honestly, not much happens. Sounds strange, but the film sets up a number of things that either don’t pay off completely or they pay off suddenly in an abrupt fashion or they just plain get abandoned. The main throughline has to do with the relationship between Barnabas and Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), the witch who cursed him to become a vampire when he spurned her advances, and any time the two of them are onscreen together, I had a great time.
But as an example of how the film misses its mark, look at the relationship between Barnabas and Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate), a nanny hired to take care of David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the damaged, withdrawn son of Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller). The film makes it very clear early on that Victoria has secrets, and she looks exactly like Josette, the woman who Barnabas loved 200 years earlier, the same one that Angelique killed when she cursed Barnabas. Instead of creating a tension between the way Barnabas reacts to both Angelique and Victoria, it seems like they forget Victoria every time she’s not onscreen. Even worse, they can’t seem to quite figure out if she’s the reincarnation of Josette or if she’s being guided by the ghost of David’s mother or quite what the rules are. And as shortchanged as Josette’s story is, it feels like they really didn’t know what to do with Roger Collins at all. Miller’s an interesting actor who has nothing to do, and just as they start to try to make him interesting, the film just shoves him out the door. Gone.
The thing is, even acknowledging the ways that the film fails, I still found myself enjoying a good deal of it. I think Michelle Pfeiffer has a real handle on what sort of film Burton was trying to make, and she and Depp have some nice moments together. Chloe Grace Moretz is practically in her own movie, and while her nearly-feral teenage angst may seem amped up to a bizarre degree, as with any good soap opera, she’s got her secrets that explain everything. Jackie Earle Haley shows up to drop a little Renfield on the proceedings as Willie Loomis, one of the last servants working at the Collins estate, while Helena Bonham Carter seems to beam in from deep space to play the aggressively wiggy Dr. Julia Hoffman, a psychiatrist who has been working with David since his mother’s death.
When the film does finally bring together for a climactic showdown at the Collins estate, that’s when I couldn’t help but think of “Death Becomes Her.” Burton and his cast go completely bonkers, quite literally bouncing off the walls. And in the end, maybe it’s just the crazy energy between Green and Depp that I find myself drawn to, because they really are nuts together. There’s a “love” scene of sorts in the middle of the film that gets loopy, and Green prowls through the film, deranged and degenerate, sexually carnivorous and completely without a moral compass. It feels like the gravity of just how big her performance is pulled the entire film out of whack. While that may mean there are things that just don’t work, I can’t deny that Green and Depp and Moretz and Pfeiffer make it feel like it’s working from moment to moment.
So… like I said. The letter grade isn’t great, but I did enjoy myself. I prefer this to anything Burton’s made since “Sleepy Hollow,” and I think I’d put it side by side with the equally-flawed “Sweeney Todd.” Maybe we won’t ever get another film from Burton as complete and satisfying as “Ed Wood” or “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” but I’ve come to a sort of peace with the idea that the bits and pieces I do enjoy can be enough sometimes.
“Dark Shadows” opens everywhere on Friday.