Big Eyes is one of those movies that managed to fly right under my critical radar until shortly before its release, despite it having been stuck in development hell since I was thirteen. The property changed hands a number of times, until it finally landed in Tim Burton’s lap in 2010, and it would take another few years and multiple actors slated and scraped for the lead roles until finally arriving at its present state with Burton at the helm and Christoph Waltz playing opposite Amy Adams. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Big Eyes proves to be not only Burton’s most grounded and sober film to date, but succeeds in its attempt at telling humanistic, engaging, and often hilarious biographical drama.
In what I view as a positive development in Burton’s artistic maturation, Big Eyes takes a slightly more realistic approach to its visual style and tone, while still managing to distinguish itself unquestionably as “a Tim Burton film.” Likewise, Danny Elfman’s instantly recognizable score serves to reinforce the idea that we’re dealing with the same old Burton that we all know and love. Though a lot of Burton’s characteristically dark and surreal imagery has been restrained in order to facilitate an emotional connection with the characters, Burton is by no means afraid to dive right back into his comfort zone when it serves the story, like when Amy Adams’ character undergoes a bit of guilt-induced paranoia, for instance.
Adams, portraying the aspiring artist Margaret Keane, gives a praiseworthy performance, thanks in large part to her open, expressive face, which allows the audience to guess what her character might be thinking and feeling, even when there is little-to-no dialogue—an especially crucial trait during Adams’ many introspective scenes. The real breakout star, however, is undoubtedly Waltz, who steals every scene he’s in and seems incapable as coming across as anything other than incredibly genuine, even when he’s lying through his teeth. By the end of the film, Waltz’s character is so gleefully despicable that I was captivated simply by the prospect of what he might do next. In my humble opinion, Waltz has absolutely earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of one of the best antagonists in film this year. Also worth mentioning, simply because I’m personally a huge fan, Jason Schwartzman appears in a cameo for about four minutes, and it’s just as glorious as you would expect.
A couple of aspects that I especially enjoyed about the film were the full and compelling emotional arcs undergone by both of the lead characters. What’s more, there were no exposition dumps and just a smattering of expository dialogue, and the audience got a sense of who the characters were through their interactions with one another. The interplay between Adams and Waltz and the strange, emotionally taxing dichotomy between the two was more than enough to keep the film going on its own, but the fact that we gradually begin to see Waltz’s true Walter Keane emerge from beneath the layers and layers of cons and façades, and Adams’ Meagan Keane as her own guilt and unfulfilled aspirations begin to chip away at her.
A few relatively minor criticisms include the third act digressing a bit and dragging on a tad too long for my taste, as well as the establishment of a frame narrative told from the perspective of a minor character. It’s strange, because I don’t think that the narration, sparse as it is, doesn’t seem particularly relevant or necessary, and really only succeeds in adding another degree of separation between the characters and the audience.
These quibbles are fairly easy to overlook, however, and didn’t detract from the film’s strong and engaging story. Big Eyes might stand as my favorite (and probably the best) of Tim Burton’s movies to date, and thanks to the forceful focus afforded to the characters and their struggles, I’m quite interested to see what Burton comes up with next.
Rating: 4 out of 5