[Review] - Big Eyes

Courtesy of Silverwood Films
I've waited eleven years to see a good Tim Burton film again. Coincidentally, that film had the word "Big" in the title too. Mostly, I'm just relieved that Burton is still capable of making films with some semblance of quality. Maybe the reason for Big Eyes' success is that Burton remembered that, while being a visual medium, films need substance of story as well as being good looking. Maybe it's because Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are thankfully nowhere to be seen, thus freeing Burton up from his decade long, self indulgent friends-only binge, a zone apparently free of constructive criticism.

Or maybe that, this based-on-real-events story is really hard to screw up. In fact, despite the fact that the film is both highly enjoyable and successful in what it attempts, it takes as easy a path at telling the story as you can get. Burton could well have painted this one by the numbers. And after his  recent string of impressionist messes, that is more than good enough.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that aren't art, they're kitsch.

The most immediate and striking thing about Big Eyes is how unBurtonesque is feels. While the opening credits have a clever uniqueness to them, they are the earliest indicator that Burton is not free wheeling with the flights of fancy here. Perhaps it is because the picture is a biopic, and Burton felt the need to ground the imagery in something more akin to reality. But the opening shot of the film, with Margaret (Amy Adams) fleeing her suburban prison, felt like she was driving off the set of Edward Scissorhands, into something more closely resembling the real world. That's not to say that Burton's personal flares aren't present, they are just reserved. This makes a world of difference in two regards: despite the constant use of bright pastel colours to contradict an increasingly dark tone, and an animator's use of sharp contrast in sets, costumes and locations, they never overwhelm the story. This has been Burton's major failing over the last ten years: his style had overwhelmed his substance. Here, they enjoy a 70/30 split relationship, with the style taking it's more accustomed back seat.

Even Danny Elfman, Burton's composer compatriot, doesn't sound like himself. Gone are the big brasses and horns of a usual Elfman composition, replaced with a far more reserved but no less effective score. What was most shocking about it was the extreme contrast it presented to previous works. As the film goes on, Elfman's usual flares begin to creep back in, as the tensions in Margaret's life begin to mount. It was a much more constructive use of expectation than I've heard a composer make use of his own reputation in the past. But in a blind listening test, this score sits well outside Elfman's usual product, which helped. Elfman and Burton's relationship has been in part due to the effectiveness of Elfman's music in invoking horrific sensations, while Burton's films have long carried a mask of horror, peeled back to reveal simply misunderstood humanity. This film is perhaps the most horrific of his career, being the slow and unfolding tale of a psychological manipulation and domination. With every line spoken by Walter (Christophe Waltz), the screws are turned tighter.

Which is where the weakness of the film begins to show. The script, by Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, takes Margaret's side completely. Not to say that isn't the side of the angels in this case, but in doing so completely, they relegate the equally interesting character of Walter to the role of secondary antagonist. From his first scene, he is shown to be a manipulative liar, a con man trapped in his own delusion of grandeur. Every line is delivered with an affected smirk, a joker's grin full of razor wire. Even as the film touches on a hidden humanity, like when he drowns his sorrows after having taken credit for a waif for the first time, it never digs deeper. When the lies hit a crescendo of violence and desperation, there is a perplexed detachment with reality in Walter. His ludicrous and cartoonish behaviour in court, his insistence that he painted the waifs despite all evidence to the contrary, his tissue paper thin anger issues. All that had to come from somewhere; there is a complex and thoroughly screwed up person at play with Walter that the film is almost completely disinterested in, in favour of the victimized Margaret.

That's not to say her story isn't interesting, it's just the easier of the two. The film does do an excellent job of providing an answer as to why she went along with Walter's lie for so long. Rather than taking a simplistic position, like she was a product of her time, or she had her own anxiety issues, or Walter was a dominating presence, the film carefully constructs a believable scenario where it is all of those things at once and felt very genuine. When it presents her with a moment to step forward and say "they're mine," she hesitates, and it feels real. In that regard, the writers did they're due diligence, and didn't simply say "it happened this way, so it must happen this way." As time goes on, fear fills in more and more of the gaps, eroding Margaret like a trickle of water eroding a stone, until eventually she builds enough support and self confidence to finally step forward. It is a long and earned journey for her, and it makes for a satisfying, if one sided, tale.

The film is populated with a string of characters who do nothing. Had Burton filled with roles with his usuals, they would have felt like indulgent cameos, and kudos to him for resisting that urge. However, they still feel like remnants from some minor motive. Margaret has a friend, played by Krysten Ritter, while Walter faces opposition from the art establishment via Jason Schwartzman and Terence Stamp. Ritter's character is meant to symbolize Walter's isolating influence, as Margaret recedes into the life and role that Walter expects. Except, her role is already so isolated and momentary that it never really feels like Margaret is giving up that much of a life. The dealer and critic played by Schwartzman and Stamp are even more confusing. They are cast in the roles of antagonists, as obstacles for Walter to overcome in his climb towards success. Which would work, if Walter were on an equal keel with Margaret; if this were as much his story as hers, opposition would be necessary. As it stands, Walter is from word one the villain, and because of that his own villains are either ineffective, or minor and provide no support to Mrs. Keene, who is the one we're all rooting for. It'd be like if Darth Vader had, as well as dealing with the Rebellion, a Senate Minority Committee vote that he had to preside over.

The film's real strength comes from it's leads, and Waltz and Adams. Waltz does more for less, and Adams does less for more, and between the two the film is really hard to dislike. As long as Burton stayed out of their way in front of the camera, they have an easy go of it. Adams too, has a harder deal, in having to build a maternal connection to two different actresses, playing her daughter in two different time periods. Considering that her daughter is by and larger her largest motivation, this is an important bit to nail, and she does so. Big Eyes ultimately is a reminder that playing to much into the idea of yourself does far more harm than good, and that admitting those limitations, and returning to a balanced place of content and ability is a successful and freeing exercise. For everyone.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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