And the explorer of the outlandish takes a break. After two “in familiar territory” yet middling films Alice and Dark Shadows, Big Eyes marks Tim Burton’s return to more grounded material. As to whether these eyes are worth a look? Yes – but the effect could have been more affecting.
Margaret Doris Hawkins (Amy Adams) is in rough waters – when we first meet her she’s hastily packing up to leave her husband. Daughter in hand and no future in tow, she lands in San Francisco with hope that her painting skills will be of use. Artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) seems to be the only person who pays attention and the two begin a romance. Though depressing looking, or even bizarre to many, Margaret’s portraits of children with magnified eyes get people talking and the money rolling in. The only problem? Walter is the one taking all the attention, and the authorship.
The submissive role a woman is forced upon, the pride of an artist and the value of expression – there is literally a wealth of themes presented before Big Eyes… but it chooses to not dig into it. The film ends up being simplistic and shallow, a highlight reel of Margaret’s life where A happens and B occurs that while interesting asks little of viewers’ investment. Progression is evident in the story but nary a sense of continuity or subtlety, which is unfortunate upon realizing Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski earlier penned the acclaimed Ed Wood (another Burton-helmed film and also a biopic).
Though the machine is cracked, the gears within are solid. Adams and Waltz are amazing here, utilizing their eyes to express in harmony with their spoken lines. Adams gives Margaret’s gazes constant vulnerability and eventually blazing courage while Waltz fuses in Keane’s stares at first endearment and then pure slyness and unstoppable hunger. By the end, however, Waltz seems to overdo the act – as the true story goes, I guess – and the climactic court case becomes less of Keane v. Keane and more Hans Landa v. Keane.
Big Eyes’ highlight, however, is the photography from Bruno Delbonnel. Together with costume designer Colleen Atwood, the duo has capitalized on the film painting’s aspect, dressing the film with lush colors and downright mesmerizing frames. Even places with limited shades, a club and a contemporary art galleria, look gorgeous on-screen. There should be no surprise seeing the French cinematographer’s name in the Oscar nomination shortlist this year.
Margaret might have experienced her awakening, those expecting for Tim Burton’s have to wait for the next round. There is brilliance here, from the message to the way it’s being delivered via visuals and acting, but the hand-holding (or hammering things home) nature makes Big Eyes quite a tiring, instead of evoking, experience.