Over the past 30 years it has often been difficult to determine who Tim Burton is. He ain’t no screenwriter, that much is certain. Any Burton film where he has received story credit has largely been a mood piece, with a barely perceptible narrative drive. He also has shown himself to occasionally be a dubious director, with style trumping substance on more than one occasion (and perhaps every occasion of late).
However, the amazing thing is that, of his 17 features, there are far more hits than misses. Even less than perfect films (such as Sleepy Hollow, Batman, Big Fish and Sweeney Todd) have largely forgivable flaws. Their evocative imagery, searing music and potent emotional cores more than compensate for various narrative faults.
Like any filmmaker, Burton’s greatest works succeed on a thematic, aesthetic and character-building level. 1994’s Ed Wood, for example, is a towering achievement, although it bombed upon its initial release. Sine then the film has steadily gained a devoted cult following. It is now fondly remembered for its terrific script, direction and performances.
The director’s latest, last year’s Big Eyes, functions as a companion piece to that earlier classic. Not only does it reteam Burton with his Ed Wood screenwriters (Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski), but Big Eyes again features the director parsing the complexities of artistic expression. While nowhere near as memorable as Ed Wood, Big Eyes is a restrained, mature work that forgoes Burton’s axiomatic quirks. Alas, the film doesn’t necessarily delve deeply into the psyche of Margaret Keane, and ultimately it is only a mildly engaging look at an artist at odds with her time.
Burton’s work has often taken on a painterly feel, with imagery and emotion dominating the viewer’s experience. Ironically, his take on Keane’s story utilizes none of these expressionistic proclivities. Not only is Big Eyes far more lucid than other Burton productions, it is definitively rooted in the real world. The post-war atmosphere of the 1950s-60s factors almost as predominately into the story as Walter or Margaret, and Keane’s struggles function (perhaps simplistically) as a microcosmic portrait of the period’s gender relations.
Big Eyes begins with the voice-over narration of Danny Huston (playing smarmy gossip reporter Dick Nolan), who humorously comments that the 1950s were a great time… if you were a man. This is certainly reflected in Margaret’s journey as she leaves her first husband with her young daughter in tow in 1958. This pointed social commentary, evoked through Alexander and Karazewski’s script and Burton’s directorial decisions, is certainly appreciated, not to mention serves as a catalyst for Keane’s character arc. It does has a fatal flaw though: the viewer never feels Margaret’s struggle to forge a path in a male-dominated world.
While Margaret eventually does come under the thumb of her second husband Walter (who psychologically browbeats her until she allows him to take credit for work), Burton and his scripters fail to explain Margaret’s state of mind. More specifically, they fail to explain why Margaret feels that she must capitulate to Walter’s fiendish showmanship and fraudulent instincts. But capitulate she does, and the script traces the couple’s torturous life together until the mid-60s, when Margaret would finally separate from Walter and eventually sue him for libel and slander.
Burton and his department heads are able to deftly suggest Margaret’s increasing despondency, particularly when Walter begins to slowly wrestle artistic credit away from her. Color and camerawork are essential in conveying the character’s emotional state, with a hellish red (for example) being predominately featured in a subterranean club where Margaret first finds out about Walter’s fabrications.
The actors are also integral in suggesting the toxicity of film’s central relationship, even if the characterizations offered by Waltz or Adams aren’t exactly memorable. Waltz in particular is playing a character that holds few surprises. While perhaps no living actor is his equal when it comes to portraying gregarious darkness, Waltz has been mining this juxtaposition for several years now, most spectacularly in his work with Quentin Tarantino. Thus, the character of Walter, while capricious and loud, remains fairly uninspired. We’ve all seen this pony do this trick before.
Adams, although quite good in the film, also doesn’t successfully transcend the script’s limitations. As mentioned, the film’s script doesn’t help an audience understand Margaret’s epochal constraints. Too many statements in the film seem designed to offer insight, yet go uncorroborated. For example, near the end of the film Margaret explains that she felt dominated in her relationship, and that the fear of being unable to provide for herself was what paved the way for Walter’s fabrications. The film doesn’t lend this fear credence however, brushing over any period in Margaret’s life where she was single and struggling. This feels like a missed opportunity, as the film clearly has an interest in parsing the hostile, testosterone-addled environment likely faced by 50s women unwilling to submit to the era’s gender roles.
Unsurprisingly, Big Eyes is far more adept at evoking raw emotion, particularly when grappling with the incalculable power of art. In several scenes Margaret speaks passionately about what her art means to her, about how the big eyed waifs she paints are “a part of her being.” These moments are enormously powerful, and Adams is able to sell them effortlessly. It almost makes other moments designed to offer psychological insight, such as when Margaret begins seeing big eyes on real people, feel superfluous.
It also brings one back to Burton’s Ed Wood, whose titular character feels like a kindred spirit to Big Eyes’ Margaret Keane. In that earlier film there are moments of pure, startling beauty, where Depp’s earnest performance, paired with Alexander and Karazewski’s script, produces something touchingly poetic about how art can transform, heal and save. What is especially notable about these scenes is that Burton, at least briefly, is able to get out of his own way and let the material speak for itself.
These scenes are few and far between in Burton’s filmography. Yet, when they emerge in Ed Wood (and to a lesser degree in Big Eyes) one understands that Burton is something far more than ornate set-design and goth, monochromatic fetishes. He is a filmmaker who believes in celebrating artists. And while his grasp on narrative may be shoddy, his compassionate focus on humanity remains consistent and profound.