"Subtle doesn't sell" - that's the motto of Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), shameless self-promoter and marketer extraordinaire in 1950s San Francisco. You'd think Tim Burton, by now, wouldn't need to follow that particular piece of advice; he's made a pretty good career out of getting people to accept his skewed, slightly off-key sensibility.
And Big Eyes, telling the true story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the real artist behind the big-eyed waifs that became an art sensation in 1950s/60s America, would be just the perfect to film to assert it again. After a series of uninspired, Burton-by-numbers big-budget spectacles coasting on his reputation, a smaller-scale, low-key drama like this could be just what the doctor ordered.
Alas, no such luck. There's nary a hint of subtlety or a trace of personality in this parable of media frenzy and unrecognised stifled talent. The mousy Margaret, a commercial artist with a lousy taste in men and a daughter to feed, allows the charming but ruthlessly scheming Walter to pass off her paintings as his own then ride the wave as his gift for (self-)promotion builds up a veritable cottage industry.
There are all sorts of ideas swirling around in the script by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but at heart this isn't a story about the drive to succeed, rather about the strength to survive. Here, Margaret was fending for herself in a patriarchal society where being a single woman raising a child on her own was not yet socially acceptable; her sensibility seemed to highlight the menace and pain underneath suburban conformity, but was misunderstood and misappropriated to the point of becoming a whole new conformism in itself. The success of her paintings, discredited by serious artists and critics but selling by the thousands to the average, art-illiterate consumer, also points out how art is a distinctly treacherous ground for absolutes.
But, for all that, Mr. Burton never seems to truly choose one of these possible paths and instead merely passes them by, preferring to take the least interesting road: that of the abused woman who allowed herself to be taken advantage of and suffered in silence until she could no longer take it. It's a choice that requires a kind of more grounded, direct, realist filmmaking than Mr. Burton usually does and where his strengths tend to lie; whereas the beauty in his masterful Big Fish was in the liberties that embellished the actual truth of the facts, there's nothing of the sort here, just a rather dull trudge through melodrama leading to a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom drama finale.
There's no lack of talent in front of and behind the camera in Big Eyes, but there seems to be no hunger nor brio (even the typically professional Ms. Adams and Mr. Waltz seem more subdued than usual, and the star supporting cast is basically wasted in glorified cameos). And while it's true that what Mr. Burton has been doing lately hasn't really been challenging (him or us) at all, this seems like the wrong sort of challenge for him to take on.
Cast Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Director Tim Burton; screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (colour); composer Danny Elfman; designer Rick Heinrichs; costumes Colleen Atwood; editor J. C. Bond; producers Lynette Howell, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Karaszewski and Mr. Burton; production companies The Weinstein Company, Tim Burton Productions and Electric City Entertainment
Screened February 2nd 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)