LOS ANGELES – It's been 20 years since Tim Burton committed “Ed Wood” to film, from a script by writers Scott Alexander Larry Karaszewski. A romantic portrait of a man and his art, it's probably the best work of the singular filmmaker's career. So the promise of “Big Eyes,” a story dabbling in similar thematic ideas from the same writing team, was significant.
The film saw its world premiere Thursday night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of a Film Independent film series, while up in Hollywood AFI Fest was wrapping things up with the LA premiere of “Foxcatcher” and Paramount was showing off Chris Rock's Toronto hit “Top Five” across town. But “Big Eyes” brought with it the potential for a new contender (Amy Adams) in a sorely lacking lead actress race and all the design considerations that come with a Burton experience. The crowd of LACMA members popped and seemed to really enjoy it, particularly relishing Christoph Waltz's over-the-top display as Walter Keane, wife of artist Margaret Keane whose “big eyes” portraits became a global sensation and forged an empire.
Burton, Adams and Waltz were on hand to discuss the project after the screening, and the auteur began by recalling his experiences growing up with the ubiquitous Keane portraits as a defining cultural element. “I had a connection to the art because growing up, Keanes were everywhere,” he said. “It was kind of like Big Brother watching you. Suburban art was the only kind of art I experienced, sadly enough, growing up. When I heard that Scott and Larry were writing this, I was amazed. With the art and with the dysfunctional relationship, it seemed perfect. I understood it. They sort of excel at these weird people that are weird.”
The point the film tries to make about Margaret – whose work was sold under the guise of being that of her husband at a time when art done by women was not as remunerative – is that she was complicit in the fraud and the guilt of that is why she held her silence for so long. (She eventually came clean, which led to a court case depicted outrageously in the film's final act.) Adams originally read the script a few years ago but felt the character too meek at a time when she was focusing on stronger female parts. But that soon changed.
“I read it again after I had my daughter and I really began to understand that the quietness of Margaret was a strength,” she said. “I understood her silence…I'm a very shy person and it's really hard for me to step up to something and take the lead, so it's something I really understand about expressing yourself through your work and not necessarily wanting to be the figurehead of your work. And when I met Margaret, there's just such an integrity about her.”
Integrity is the last thing you would accuse Walter – particularly the Walter of this film – of having. Waltz knew what he was getting into, digging under the skin of this slimy opportunist in a performance that comes off as pure caricature in the end. But he wanted to push past any sort of judgment, naturally.
“There is an autobiography that Tim gave me, and I must admit, after page 27 it's hard to read – out of seemingly 1,700 pages,” he said. “It's delusional rambling, basically. It's interesting from a phenomenological point of view and psychoanalytically it might be inspiring. But it gave me the impression that the actual man must have been beyond portrayal…That is slightly demeaning, and I meant it, but it's not really useful to us for telling a story that's worthwhile. Having an opinion about something is fairly boring, because how do you go from there? How do you see the world if you're opinionated? So I'm not called upon to have an opinion. I actually want to understand and I want to empathize.”
The result is a truly strange piece of work. Tonally, it's rather all over the place. The third act finally commits to the zany elements strewn throughout with Waltz aiming for the fences as Keane serves as his own defense against a slander dispute. Maybe the real trial was that absurd (according to the filmmakers they toned it down for the film), but wow. Elsewhere, the aforementioned design elements are a touch muted; it feels like the most un-Burton Burton film to date, really. Rick Heinrichs' sets are well wrought and Colleen Atwood's period work in the costume department stands out, but it seems like Burton's best friend lately is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. There are a few inspiring frames here and there and it just seems like a collaboration that will bear significant fruit eventually.
But if nothing else, “Big Eyes” is a fascinating choice of subject matter for Burton, who moderator Elvis Mitchell of Film Independent noted has shown a peculiar interest throughout his career in characters whose ambitions outreach their talents.
“Well, I understand that completely,” the director said with trademark self-deprecation. “That's the story of my life.”
“Big Eyes” opens Christmas Day.