It’s become almost standard procedure to expect the absolute worst from Tim Burton these days. Not content to come up with his own original ideas, he has instead spent the better part of a decade bastardizing (or, re-imagining) old properties that never needed to be brought back at all. However, from the start, Big Eyes seemed a little different. Despite all of his faults, Burton is still a good director, and this subdued little true story seemed to finally be the thing to bring that out of him again.
In the late 1950s, Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her negligent husband with her daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) and heads off to Los Angeles to try to make a life for themselves. Margaret is a struggling painter who’s main staple is portraits of children with large, emotive eyes. One day, while painting in the park, the devilishly charming Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) approaches and courts her. They find themselves getting married quickly in order to keep Jane, but Margret does not seem to realize who she’s married, as Walter starts to take credit for her work in order to achieve mass fame and fortune, something he has always dreamed of.
Margaret’s emotional turmoil as she finds herself more and more trapped by Walter’s lies makes this Burton’s most relatable work in quite some time. This comes not only from a lean screenplay that cuts out any nonsense and gets right to the point, but from the strong performances from Adams and Waltz. With the help a syrupy southern drawl and a rather cute blonde wig, Adams taps into her inherent likability to instantly connect as the sweet to a fault Margaret. Meanwhile, Waltz, a master of playing villains at this point, throws his entire body into making Walter the absolute sleaziest, most artificially charming salesman this side of the Pacific. Although very charming at first, by the end of the film, he’s just pathetic, which is a nice change for a Waltz villain, who usually manages to remain likable the entire film.
This is also a gorgeous film to look at. Burton, while heavily scaled back, still throws in several ascetic touches that suit his style very well. The colors are all extremely prominent, fitting in a film about painting, making each frame feel like they’re out of an art book about this period. It captures the essence of the time, with some flair, without going completely overboard.
For all that is good about Big Eyes, every so often, we do hit some bumps in the road. There are a few scenes toward the end that just don’t ring as true as before, mostly due to Waltz going a touch overboard to portray the pathetic side of Walter. It does work, but it’s a bit manipulative. Also, while I know it’s cruel to pick on child actors, both girls who play Jane are extremely stilted and wooden. Although I guess you could say Madeleine Arthur, who plays the older Jane, was just trying to capture the stiffness of her predecessor. That’s real method acting right there.
Big Eyes is Tim Burton’s best film in quite some time, and it’s exactly the smaller story he needed to tell to break out of his creative funk. It’s a subtle, well acted little drama that could make for a nice alternative over the holidays. It’s nothing spectacular, but that’s because it’s not trying to be, and for Burton, that’s a great achievement in and of itself.