There’s barely a trace of Tim Burton’s signature elements in Big Eyes – no Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter, no Gothic stylings, no creepy monsters – and yet, this true-life story about fraud and female subjugation is the director’s most entertaining film since 2003’s Big Fish.
The luminous Amy Adams stars as Margaret, a struggling single mother who arrives in San Francisco with her young daughter in 1958, hoping to realize her dream of becoming a professional artist. Threatened with losing custody of her child, she marries Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charming smooth-talker who offers to help sell her kitschy paintings of little children with disproportionately large eyes. He soon convinces her, however, to let him take credit for her work, and as the paintings become all the rage across America he builds an empire promoting it as his own.
Powered by its terrific central performances – particularly from Adams, who gives her character a quiet dignity even while playing doormat to a bullying husband – the film is consistently compelling, the dynamic between the two being the heart of the picture. Big Eyes shares little by way of DNA with Burton’s trademark off-center hits, but one scene in which Margaret imagines people with eyes resembling the portraits she paints, bears the filmmaker’s stamp all over it. Little else does, from the sunny production design to the fairly straightforward storytelling.
The last act, in which Margaret flees from Walter and subsequently sues him for the credit she deserves, makes for a surprisingly entertaining courtroom drama. Waltz hams it up with such flair in these laugh-out-loud scenes, it’s hard not to cheer. There are nice cameos too from Jason Schwartzman playing a snotty gallery owner who can’t understand how these ugly paintings have become a phenomenon, and from Terence Stamp as a New York Times critic committed to saving the world from bad art.
But look beyond the chuckles, and you’ll notice that the film raises important questions about gender equality in the field of art, and about psychological abuse. Burton never hammers the message about empowerment in a heavy-handed manner, but Margaret’s journey to reclaim her identity makes for fascinating viewing, especially in the film’s final moments.
I’m going with three out of five for Big Eyes. It’s not a film with grand ambitions, but one that keeps you riveted through its drama. It’s also an indicator of Burton’s wide range.