From the very beginning of his career, Tim Burton has made his success as an adapter of existing properties. He has achieved mega-success with his Batman films and Alice in Wonderland, and is continually tapped to do re-imagine cultural products such as Dark Shadows, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes, and Sleepy Hollow. He's even adapted a trading card series to the big screen with Mars Attacks!, a hilarious film in its own right.
Yet I've always felt that Burton was most interesting when working on original creations. I think of deeply personal projects like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, both versions of Frankenweenie, Edward Scissorhands, and, most of all, Ed Wood. Burton always adds a distinct stamp to his work, and you can generally tell that you're watching something by him even without being consciously aware of it. With Ed Wood, for example, Burton focused in on a particularly absurd stretch of the titular director's career, and therefore introduced a generation of moviegoers to the terrifically energetic and misguided genius of films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. That film feels like it came straight from Burton's heart, a true labor of love. It was also distinctly the work of its screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have also co-written Burton's newest film, Big Eyes. With such a creative team, which also includes the likes of co-stars Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes was posed to be a return to form for Burton, who has begun to seem like the kooky-minded workhorse for the Walt Disney Company. Unfortunately, it's kind of a snooze.
In the late 1950s, after leaving her abusive husband with her young daughter, Margaret (Adams), attempting to scrape together cash by selling her paintings of children with enormous, expressive eyes, meets Walter Keane (Waltz), a fellow artist whose knack for salesmanship makes them a good team. Drawn to his magnetic personality, Margaret agrees to a hasty marriage, neglecting actually to get to know the guy. She continues to paint and finds minor success—while Walter's own work is passed over—but due to the fact that female artists do not sell, Walter insists on taking credit for Margaret's work. He trades his wife's dubious talent in for financial success as the paintings are mass-produced and sold on the cheap in the form of posters and postcards. During this time, Margaret continues to work, agonizing over her lack of authorial recognition and the mounting lie she is building with her husband. After ten years of this, Margaret abandons Walter with her daughter and escapes to Hawaii, at which point she sues him for stealing her work.
On paper, this story seems well-suited to Burton, whose own interest in Keane's macabre yet sweet work has had an obvious influence on his own. Yet in spite of Burton's prodigious talent as a fantasist, he manages to work in only one visually interesting scene in the entire movie, preferring instead to tell the story straight as an arrow. The screenplay includes ancillary characters in an attempt to add spice to the story, many of whom may or may not actually exist. They are played by a large supporting cast, comprised of Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, and Terrence Stamp. The film undoubtedly belongs to Adams and Waltz, however, since the rest of the cast is either unimportant to the plot or receives minimal attention. This was an unwise choice, because the unwavering focus on the Keanes lends the film a sense of tunnel vision, as we fail to grasp a larger context of the world around them. With such an excellent cast, Burton could have added a lot more color to the film and made it feel more sprawling and important than it does.
You can do a lot worse than be left with only Adams and Waltz to anchor a film, however. These actors are the main reasons to watch the film, as well as why it manages not to feel like a History Channel special. Adams channels the simmering rage of her character's repression through—you guessed it—her eyes, which tell her internal story even as she smiles at people admiring her own, stolen work. Waltz, on the other hand, plays big here, his giant personality threatening to overtake each scene he is in. Nevertheless, he still feels believable even as he acts as his own attorney in the case against his wife towards the end of the film. Apparently, Waltz was directed to hold back from being too crazy, in spite of the fact that the real Walter Keane was completely unhinged, way more so than the film would have us think. That, also, is a lost opportunity: watching Waltz go hog wild over this film could have made it a lot more interesting.
There is, finally, the film's themes of artistic legitimacy, and the push-pull between that and financial success. This is a subject that has clear implications on Burton's own career, and surely would have crossed his mind as he made the film. Like Birdman and Top Five from this year, there is a boorish art critic character in the film, played by Stamp, who is portrayed as being simultaneously justified in his drubbing of Keane's work, as well as being a stuffy jerk for presuming the authority to make such a judgment. If Burton had a point by including this character, it is completely lost in the wishy-washy way that he handles him.
Big Eyes was produced on a $10 million budget, which is minuscule compared to the hundreds of millions that Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland cost. Both of those films are a slog, and indicate that deeper producer pockets do not automatically constitute a more interesting film. Burton has now also proved that slimming down his resources doesn't help much, either. This is troubling news, considering the massive potential that he had twenty years ago. I suppose once you sell out, it's difficult to get that old feeling back.