He went the distance in proving the cynical naysayers correct, reaching his nadir with Alice in Wonderland (2010), which jettisoned authentic Carrollesque surrealism in favor of populist fluff and a cringe-inducing slice of Johnny Depp ham.
In vain, one hoped Burton had nowhere to go but up, but he only continued his slide, proving nostalgia is fleeting with an ill-advised and execrable update of Dark Shadows (2012). He followed this with a pointless, self-plagiarized feature, Frankenweenie (2012), which predictably worked better in its original version as a compact short.
Burton is certainly not immune to critical fallout. Of course, it has hardly affected his box office standing, but popularity with aesthetically illiterate masses is only salt to the wound.
With Big Eyes, Burton belatedly responds to critics by playing the narcissistic victim, projecting himself onto the figure of artist Margaret Keane. In doing so, he damn near kills the film, but, surprisingly, his opus (barely) survives him.
Burton’s epic misstep is in subduedly addressing Keane’s art as kitsch. It is kitsch. There is nothing original about her mass-produced art for the Walmart home spread. Her illustrations are a kind of synthetic parody of Modigliani. Yet, Burton is a Keane fan, and fan is short for fanatic. Naturally, he takes the fanboy approach in identifying with his object of adulation. Undoubtedly, Burton can find affinity in Keane’s strategical marketing to a bourgeoise public.
In pedestaling Margaret Keane’s gimmicky, one-note cartoons, Burton casts the art critics and gallery dealers as two-dimensional, jealous predators. It’s the equivalent of a cinematic exclamation point, or a big bang at the end of a pedestrian symphony. The homogenous Tim Burton/Margaret Keane hybrid becomes a much put-upon martyr. Cue big, puppy-eyed closeup. It is the kind of manipulative choice that Spielberg used to be so goddamned guilty of.
Big Eyes would have been a far better film had Burton made a smarter choice by avoiding the topic altogether, or in taking either an objective or idiosyncratic approach (as he did in Ed Wood). In many ways, Big Eyes serves as little sister to Ed Wood, but in that earlier film, a younger, fresher director did not succumb to tomfoolery. Wood‘s art was also kitsch, but it was his hopelessly desperate naiveté and inherent weirdness that unintentionally redeemed his work as something more than the sum of its parts. To this day, Wood still belongs underground and remains a malcontent, misfit failure in marketers eyes. Keane’s art, or lack thereof, is not blessed with such weirdness. Rather than being an object of derision and shame, she is a patron saint of sorts; a success story in an evil empire. That glove of acceptability prohibits Keane’s work from being the driving force of Big Eyes, and the film comes dangerously close to overdosing on banality. Its good points are nearly derailed by Burton’s junky choices.
Rather, the nexus of Big Eyes is a broader, meatier topic, but even in that, the writing takes a sketchy approach. Burton leaves it up to the two leads to propel the film into something grander. Fortunately, Amy Adams and Christopher Waltz deliver what they can, in spite of the script’s limitations.
Patriarchal domination and misogynistic abuses are the legitimate themes. The Rush Limbaughs of the world, who prefer the 1950s ideal of complacent housewives, will dismiss this as feminist claptrap. Certainly, there is validity in the “propaganda” label. Waltz, as Walter Keane, is not given much of a character arc to work with. He is a charismatic sleaze. The narrative problem is his being portrayed as such from the introduction. It bespeaks Margaret’s lack of depth and intuitiveness that she is wholeheartedly and complacently wedded to his Elmer Gantry-like sales pitch, only divorcing herself from it when she trades n his spousal domination for a religious one. Unfortunately, Burton and writers are hardly up to multifaceted psychology.
Today, some members of the Keane family claim that Big Eyes misrepresents Walter. While his abusiveness towards Margaret seems to be acknowledged, the fact that he did indeed develop the conceptfor the “Big Eyes” motif is avoided altogether in Burton’s film. Whether that is true or not is primarily irrelevant, but opening the possibility might have made for a more compelling story.
Given the rudimentary characterizations (big bad patriarchal wolf vs maternal deer-caught-in-headlight victim), Adams and Waltz go the distance in giving substantial flesh to celluloid cardboard. Burton is to be commended for giving them the freedom to do so. It has been a long time since this director holstered his self-made auteur crown and genuinely collaborated with actors, evidenced in a decade of Burton films populated with phoned-in Depp performances.
The chemistry between Adams and Waltz works best in the quieter moments. His pathetic desperation in contrast to her steely reserve creates a compelling Gunfight in the OK Courtroom, awash in Hitchcockian colors. The film’s more histrionic burning-down- the-house moments unwisely channel Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining (1980), and we are as disconnected now as we were thirty-five years ago.
Too little is made of Margaret’s post-marriage conversion to the Jehovah Witnesses, which might have made an interesting postlude. When the Artist Formerly Known As Prince also went that route, his work undeniably devolved, producing a blithering musical idiot. For Margaret Keane, who, unlike Prince, never possessed an iota of genuine artistic talent, the conversion (which is erroneously, subtly skirted over) resulted in a style like a watered-down Salvador Dali (for the John Ward Home Interiors crowd who cannot handle Dali).
Big Eyes could have benefited from a healthy dose of Woodian weirdness, but the disparity found between heroin addiction combined with transvestism, in opposition to a paint-by-number version of “Taming Of The Shrew,” is simply too big.
Regardless of the film’s flaws, Burton almost seems alive again here, as does composer Danny Elfman, who produces his best work in years.
It remains to be seen whether this will be a baby step toward Burton reclaiming his spark. A promising note might be discovered in the announcement that he will be reuniting with Michael Keaton for a belated Beetlejuice (1988) sequel. Of course, it could equally prove a disaster.
If Keaton and David Lynch can resurrect themselves, then Burton too may finally put his artistic bankruptcy behind him.