Big Eyes is the first live-action film Tim Burton has made without his bauble-spangled muse, Johnny Depp, since 2003, and it’s a refreshing departure from the usual Burton world of guyliner and reaction shots. Big Eyes tells the (sorta) true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a plucky single mom who leaves her boring suburban fifties life for San Francisco, hoping to make it in the city as an artist. Her struggles to make a life on her own are cut short when she quickly gets remarried to a rich schemer named Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz), whom she reluctantly lets take credit for her kitschy paintings of saucer-eyed children, only to see them become a novelty success thanks to his shameless scheming.
As much fun is it is to see Burton take his color palette out of the freezer and warm it up to medium high, and leave goth camp for the sci-fi fifties (his perfect sandbox, strangely), he seems to have broken the knob off his volume control in the process. Big Eyes waffles between realism and camp from scene to scene and even within the same character. Christoph Waltz is a brilliant actor, but no amount of acting can turn an Austrian into a native-born American, and you probably shouldn’t try to pull off the never-explained Euro protagonist outside of a Van Damme or Schwarzenegger movie (where it’s awesome). Waltz delivers a thoroughly bizarre performance, and even in the context of Walter Keane’s pathologically shameless showman character, his scene chewing frequently crosses the line between “sociopath” and “human jack-o-lantern.” You can’t tell whether he wants to paint a picture or jack off on one.
Big Eyes puts me in the strange position of accusing Tim Burton of botching a story I only know about because of him. It’s a fascinating yarn, but the more it spins, the more it feels like Burton and his screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are pulling at the wrong threads. Walter was a bullshitter, but he also brilliantly exploited an art world that was mostly based on bullshit. In the process, he gave his wife’s work a life it never could’ve had on its own, even if he denied her the credit for it. It raises an interesting question: if art doesn’t sell without bullshit, who’s more entitled to the proceeds, the artist or the bullshitter? And isn’t that much more interesting than Margaret’s hero’s quest to tell the “truth”?
Big Eyes is so focused on selling Margaret as a victim and Walter as a psychotic that you can’t help but wonder what this story might have looked like if she was the one who died and he was attending the movie premiere rather than the other way around.
Despite its problems, Big Eyes‘ bright colors and Waltz’s batshit, flailing performance make it compelling in the same way as a Keane painting. A little chintzy, and the proportions are all f*cked up, but you feel strangely drawn to it just the same.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.