Tim Burton’s Big Eyes

Big Eyes, the story of mid-century artist Margaret Keane who took her husband to court to prove that her popular portraits of big-eyed children were by her, and not him, is more interesting as a new direction for Tim Burton than it is as a film in its own right.

The film is fine, really, just a little forgettable, a little shallow. The biggest problem is Christoph Waltz, whose performance as Walter Keane is so over the top it’s hard to see how he even exists in the same universe as everyone else. For almost the whole film he has a fixed, wide, Joker-like grin that looked painful to be holding for so long and he practically capers. He’s supposed to be an incredibly charming man and a highly-competent salesman but he’s mostly just grotesque; that anybody would spend even a second with him is implausible, and his bug-eyed, grinning, dribbling performance that’s full-on from the moment he’s introduced constantly unbalances the film.

By contrast, Amy Adams is great as Margaret Keane, giving a subtle and subdued showing as she lets Walter get away with more and more until she’s trapped in her own lie, distanced from everyone and effectively locked in an attic churning out paintings. Her faint smile when she’s asked to paint publicly in court conveys more than the entirety of Waltz’s court jester hijinks.

What’s of more interest to me is how significant a departure the film is for Tim Burton: his first live-action film since 1996 not to star either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter. There’s no Jack Skellington cameo that I could see, and no black and white striped decor. The most Burtonesque touch, aside from his obvious fondness for mid-century kitsch and home furnishings, is a hallucinatory moment in a supermarket, where Margaret Keane starts seeing big eyes on every passing person, but even that is pretty subdued, by Burton’s standards.

If you can stomach Waltz’s overbearing turn then Big Eyes is enjoyable enough. It’s light and frothy, and while it lacks significant tension or drama it’s never boring either. This is far from Tim Burton’s best work but also far from his worst, and it’s nice to see him trying something different for a change. I feel like he ought to be encouraged.