Big Eyes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her husband, daughter in tow (Delaney Raye), in the late 1950s to live in San Francisco with the intention of making it as an artist. As a woman in the art world and a divorcée, luck is not on her side. But when she meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), it appears as though her life is about to experience a change for the better. After all, it seems like he believes in her talent in a genuine way, very encouraging and supportive. Walter has not yet revealed that he is in fact a charlatan—a man who will eventually claim credit for her beloved paintings of waifs with eyes as big as saucers.
Directed by Tim Burton, “Big Eyes” offers an interesting story, almost too wild to be believed, but the execution lacks a special quality, specifically a sense of urgency. As events unfold, the experience is rather zen-like, quite soporific in spots, only to be rescued by Adams’ expressive but unsubtle performance. Overall, I liked the idea of telling this story but the movie itself fails to deliver anything that stands out.
The picture is not without a sense of humor. Waltz’ approach, as expected, is overacting and trying to milk every line he is given just to get a chuckle or a laugh. Although he is able to portray his character like a buffoon, not once are we convinced that what we are seeing is a real person with real insecurities. Walter is a cartoon in a live action film about artistic integrity. The contradiction does not work because the supporting character is not fleshed out in such a way that makes us think about the turmoils in his mind.
Nor do we get this quality with the protagonist. We understand why Margaret chooses to play along with the sham for a while because she is desperate to provide for her daughter. The problem lies in Adams’ portrayal—there is no middle-ground between meekness and being outspoken. The fluctuations are so abrupt at times that I was distracted rather than being invested in the drama. Although Adams is solid in embodying both states, the magic in dramatic films are usually found in the transition—the journey from A to B.
The lack of complexity of both the protagonist and antagonist makes the movie quite dull. The paintings shown are interesting, odd, dark, and there is willingness to take some risks. This picture is almost the exact opposite which is very curious because Burton is usually about hyperbolizing the bizarre to make us not want to look away. One can argue that it is a misstep for the director to step away from what he knows best in a story that calls out for such qualifications.
“Big Eyes,” written by Scott Alexander and Larry Kraszewski, does have some good moments. For instance, when Walter is asked by a potential customer about his inspirations, how long it usually takes him to finish a painting, and the sorts of techniques he employs to create his work, it is most revealing how out of depth he is. It is funny on the surface but at the same time there is a sadness to it deep down because one must wonder how desperate he is, how empty he must feel inside, just so he can stand in the spotlight that much longer, knowing all the time that he hasn’t done anything to earn it.