It’s tempting, but not exactly accurate to think of Big Eyes as a return to form for Tim Burton. Although it recalls the vibrant cartoon suburbia of classic titles like Edward Scissorhands, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and Beetlejuice and the biopic format of the masterful Ed Wood, it’s not quite like anything Burton’s ever made before. In some ways Big Eyes is a by-the-numbers biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, elevated only by performances by always-welcome names like Amy Adams, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Christoph Waltz. The most interesting play with form here is the way Waltz’s controlling husband steals the movie from its subject the same way his real-life counterpart stole the limelight & credit for her life’s work, kitschy paintings of depressed children with oversized eyes. For the most part, however, Big Eyes is a straightforward genre exercise, low-key in its scope & ambitions. At this point of Burton’s career, though, a low-key genre exercise is a welcome change from the long string of CGI remakes he’s been releasing since the early 2000s. It’s the most fun, relaxed, and memorable film he’s made in years, even if it bears little resemblance to the cartoon goth aesthetic of his 80s & 90s heyday.
That’s not to say that the film is devoid of Burton’s traditional modes of comical horror; it’s just that the horror takes on a much different form. In this case, Waltz’s sleazebag showman plagiarist (who takes a very Warholian approach to art as commerce) is the threat that plagues the film’s characters. Amy Adams’ Margaret Keane begins the film by leaving one abusive relationship and slipping immediately into another, with Waltz’s crazed pathological liar husband sucking up all of the life & freedom she barely had left over from her first marriage. As she explains it, “I’ve never acted freely. I was a daughter and then a wife and then a mother.” Even as a painter she’s treated as a subordinate, her personal expressions converted into commerce by an abusive, manipulative man. The creepy thing is that he’s so sleazily charming even while he’s ruining her life. Waltz is hilarious, hamming it up as much as he’s allowed, chewing scenery like a hungry dog who’s food’s about to get taken away. His performance is an impressive balance between funny & creepy and before you know it he’s forced Adams’s Keane to take a backseat to her own story the same way the true life plagiarist sidelined his kitsch artist wife. He’s not a headless horseman or a bloodthirsty Martian or a fabricated man with scissors for hands, but he most certainly is a monster.
I spent a lot of Big Eyes’ run time trying to figure out exactly what inspired Burton to tell this story. There are aspects of art as show business, the uselessness of critics, and the redundancy of an artist endlessly repeating themselves that could invite comparisons to Burton’s own work as a filmmaker, but none with too concrete of a conclusion. Maybe he was drawn to telling a story about how it sucked to be a woman in the 50s or he’s just a huge Margaret Keane fan and wanted to tell her story (which is quite interesting). Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome change of pace from Burton’s recent output and his catalog could benefit from more low-key, straightforward works like it. I’m not sure Waltz needs to be set free to ham it up more often, but it works here and the rest of the cast offer a good, calm counterbalance to his eccentricities. For now, it was great to see him steal some spotlight and for Burton’s aesthetic to receive some much-needed sunshine & relaxation.