Big Eyes is a change of pace for Tim Burton but has invited comparison to his earlier work. The two obvious points of comparison are Ed Wood, another true story about kitsch artists, and Edward Scissorhands, evoking its pastel satire of suburbia. Yet where the two Edwards are almost universally beloved, Big Eyes has received a more muted reception. Everyone agrees it’s a step up from Burton’s last two live-action films, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows, but there’s much disagreement on how big of a step up it is, with pretty much no one arguing that it’s Burton’s best. I liked it, but I think I know why it’s not as powerful as Scissorhands or Wood. And that’s because it’s structured not like either of those films, but by a different Burton film entirely.
It’s like Batman.
The typical Burton film (Wood, Scissorhands, Pee-Wee, Frankenweenie, etc.) is focused around an outsider hero, and the conflict is “man vs. society.” “Man vs. man” conflicts tend to be smaller episodic incidents against this larger background; “villains” in any meaningful sense are mostly there for the final act climax and little else. In Batman and Big Eyes, on the other hand, not only is the main conflict of the hero vs. villain variety, but the villain frequently overtakes the hero as the center of attention. Both villains (The Joker and Walter Keane) satisfy Burton’s interest in eccentric outsiders and “freaks.” The heroes also fit the outsider mode, but unlike other Burton heroes, Bruce Wayne and Margaret Keane are capable of passing as normal. The most interesting thing about Michael Keaton’s Wayne is how if you saw him out in public, you’d never suspect him of being Batman. Margaret also has to hide her passions from the world and put on a passive identity in public. Amy Adams is excellent at expressing the subtleties of this repressed character’s conflicting emotions, her feminist independence versus her need to fit in and not stir up trouble. But the movie isn’t able to dig in deep enough into her psyche because it has Christoph Waltz’s Walter eating the scenery constantly.
Now, even as I wish Adams had more development, I enjoyed Waltz’s performance. He’s a fresher brand of ham than Jack Nicholson was in Batman, and it’s hard to complain about him being so broad and ridiculous when it sounds like they actually had to tone some details down from the real-life Walter (only thing truly off from what I can tell is the Eurotrash accent on an American character, but since he spends so much time raving about his time in France, I can accept it as an affectation). He’s charming at times, funny at others, and at others horrifically scary. The movie doesn’t seem particularly interested in the questions of “good art vs. bad art” but instead looks at how the artists deemed “bad” react to criticism: where Margaret doesn’t care what about critics because her art is personal, Walter feels entitled to success and attacks those who criticize him, verbally as “censors” (gee, where have I seen that?) as well as physically (which leads me to believe that when the inevitable Uwe Boll biopic gets made, Waltz needs to play Uwe). How he continues to struggle with criticism following his popular success (“What’s wrong with the lowest common denominator?”) adds an extra personal layer in the context of Burton’s filmography, where his most critically derided films have been some of the biggest moneymakers. The freak outsider becomes the monstrous insider.
Speaking of critics, maybe it’s just because of the fact Jason Schwartzman plays one of the featured art snobs, but is it just me or is Tim Burton minus the gothic and fantasy elements while retaining the high visual stylization and eccentricity kind of Wes Anderson-ish? Anderson’s been doing what Burton’s frequently accused of (making the same sort of film over and over again) but he’s been honing his style much more successfully than Burton has recently. Where Anderson aims highbrow, Burton’s content to dig into the depths of kitsch. Yet as Big Eyes shows, he still has plenty of interesting things to say and fun stories to tell in the world of kitsch.