Film Review: Big Eyes

Written by Dylan Brandsema

poster-for-tim-burtons-big-eyes

Big Eyes Plot Summary:

A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband (Christoph Waltz), who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Over the last few decades, Tim Burton has become sort of a subjective filmmaker. His breakthrough directorial efforts in the late 80’s/early 90’s such as Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and his Batman films firmly established him as one of the most unique directors of his generation — with much critical and rightly-deserved acclaim. As the years rolled by, audiences seemed to grow tired of his zany, whimsical visual styles and eccentric, madcap fantasy stories. With a seemingly never-ending stream of mediocre productions like the awful Dark Shadows and shameful remakes of classics such as Planet of The Apes and Alice In Wonderland, many feared that the once-exalted Burton had run out of steam. However, with his newest creation, Big Eyes, Burton proves once again that he can craft great films with both style and substance.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Although Big Eyes is great as a whole, it doesn’t get off to the best start. The film does a good job at successfully introducing the initial plot and both the major and minor characters involved in it. After while, despite there being plenty of things happening, it never really gains the full momentum that a rewarding first act should have. There are moments where you find yourself waiting for something truly worthwhile to happen, which causes many scenes to dwell aimlessly in tone, and not in a manner that’s trivial to the big picture.

Fortunately, once the second act kicks in, and the film gains its long-needed energy, it’s mesmerizing. The twists and turns of the story unfold at the most perfect pace and it moves along at a speed that’s just enough for the audience to absorb what’s happening and move on to the next plot point without having to feel like they’re waiting or lodging on one component for too long. Juxtaposing the great direction given to the actors by Burton, this is partly due to the terrific screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. When the key elements start to kick in the door and the gears of the narrative start grinding, it’s enthralling in a way that Burton hasn’t explored in many, many years, and the second act of the film as a whole is fantastic because of it.

The third act of Big Eyes begins rough, but it evens out after a few minutes. The sequence of scenes that draw the film to it’s conclusion are surely some of the best. In what is essentially a battle of wits between the two leads, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, the extensive courtroom climax toward the end of the film consummately showcases Burton’s ability to appropriately balance subtle humor and drama in a way that can more than perfectly be used to describe the entire movie.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

As many will likely point out, there are many things about Big Eyes that make it the outcast of Tim Burton’s filmography — one of the most notable is that it is Burton’s first feature film with a brand new, all-original cast since 1988s Beetlejuice. This leads into the point that because Big Eyes is an entirely character-driven story, it’s the actors portraying the characters that really make it work. Here within lies one of the few sins of the film as a whole: The beautiful and luminous Amy Adams as the protagonist Margaret Keane, and Christoph Waltz as her husband/archenemy/business partner Walter Keane, are both stellar, even if there are some moments where Waltz’s performance gets a little hammy.  It’s in the minor characters though where the film’s cast-guided flow starts to get shallow. While the lesser parts portrayed by Krysten Ritter and Jon Polito are fine, it’s the addition of stars like Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston and Terence Stamp that seem excessive. At certain times it seems like some of them were only added to give the film more star power. Even if their performances were convincing, and their characters vital parts of the true story that the film’s tale tells. On the subject of Danny Huston specifically, his character, journalist Dick Nolan, is assigned the task of narrating the film, which feels entirely unnecessary. Whenever it happens, which is oddly infrequent (especially for a Burton picture), it feels awkwardly tacked on and comes off as an attempt to add more Burton-ness to a film that’s not very Burton-y. It’s especially annoying when you realize that the majority of Huston’s scattered narration is nothing but useless exposition to force character development and story progression down the throats of the viewer, as if the movie assumes that everyone watching is too dumb to figure it out for themselves.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company
Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

Despite its defects, believe it or not, Big Eyes is pretty damn good! It’s been 20 years since Burton’s widely acclaimed Ed Wood (which many have hailed as his finest work), and it’s not hard to make the claim that this is likely his best since then. It’s most probably a coincidence that they’re both biopics that take place in the 1950’s, but maybe it’s also a calling for Burton to make a change in his career as a filmmaker. That said, one of the other things that makes Big Eyes is just how refreshing it is. For the first time in a long time, audiences get to see Tim Burton calm his crazy ass down for once and make a movie set in reality, about real people doing real things, as opposed to the usual crazy fantasy-world hypnagogic fairy tales about dragons, vampires, magic potions, talking animals and toys, and the other frivolous Tim Burton tropes we’ve all grown so, if not too familiar with. That’s not to say Big Eyes is entirely without any Burton-isms though — there are plenty of neon green telephones, pink refrigerators, exuberant and bright costumes, and expressionist-style set pieces to keep you safely secured in the Burton world, while also presenting you something new by way of unfamiliar, yet bracing story structure, excellent performances throughout, and enough intensity and twists and turns to keep you glued to your seat the entire 106 minutes.

Is Big Eyes one of the best films of 2014? That probably depends on who you ask. It’s probably more than just a convenience that Burton’s most original film in years comes out just as Oscar season rolls around, but nonetheless, it is most definitely a great movie. Unthinkably worth seeing if you’re Burton fanatic, and still worth checking out at least once otherwise.

At the end of it all, it’s ultimately satisfying altogether.

Overall Rating: 8/10

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