Via Correspondence: Big Eyes (2014)
The Series: Isaac lives in New Brunswick. Jason lives in Toronto. Every so often, they watch a movie separately and then share their thoughts in a back-and-forth conversation here. It's the written equivalent of a movie discussion podcast.
The Movie: Big Eyes reunites screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewsk (The People vs. Larry Flynt, Goosebumps, Ed Wood) with director Tim Burton (Who are we kidding? You know who Tim Burton is). It tells the true story of Walter and Margaret Keane. During the 1960s, Walter's paintings of big eyed waifish children were the best selling paintings in the world, earning him millions and catapulting him to stardom. Little did the world know, Walter was a complete fraud. It was Margaret who toiled away in anonymity, captive of a secret that had gotten way too out of hand.
Why This Movie?: Tim Burton has made some of my favourite movies: His Batman movies, Edward Scissorhands, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow and Ed Wood are what I consider essential. Not to mention all of the great stuff he's had a hand in as a producer. But lately, it seems film fans and critics have completely written the guy off. These days, he seems to garner more eye rolls and shrugs than accolades or praise. And I'll admit I've fallen off of his movies lately too. A lot of his stuff in the last 10 years hasn't been great (although his movies are always great to look at) and some of it I haven't even bothered to catch up on. So, while he hasn't made anything I've enjoyed in a while I still consider him one of the greats. He still has a lot of hits in his filmography and surely he's got at least one more great movie left in him. And I thought Big Eyes had the potential to be that film.
Isaac: I'm not sure if you agree with my assessment of Tim Burton or not, Jason, but there was a time when I counted him among my favourite filmmakers. I still respect him, but he hasn't made a film I've been able to connect with lately. I think the last one of his I saw was Dark Shadows, which was visually great but otherwise a pretty big dud. It would have been better to play it closer in tone to the show it was based on, but that's a conversation for another article.
I wasn't sure what to expect with Big Eyes. I remember it getting okay reviews when it came out but not making a big splash one way or the other. Before that, it seemed that every film he released was totally eviscerated by critics, so not making a big splash might be a step in the right direction. I like the two leads Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, and it's written by the screenwriters of Ed Wood which is my absolute favourite Burton movie. So, I figured there'd have to be something to enjoy. On the other hand, the thing with movies is you can put the most talented creators and performers in the world together, throw a ton of cash at them, and still come up with total dogshit.
But before I get into whether I thought it was genius, dogshit, or something in between, I'm going to hand it over to you.
Jason: Like you, I have found it increasingly difficult to generate any kind of excitement for a Tim Burton project. I just don't care. The most recent film of his I had seen was Sweeney Todd, and I wasn't wild about that one. I liked elements, but was underwhelmed, overall. I didn't seek out Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows, or Alice in Wonderland and word of mouth did nothing to sway me to take the plunge. That said, I was intrigued about Big Eyes.
I was mostly intrigued because Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter were absent. I like them both, but it seemed so obvious every time a new Burton movie was released. Maybe it wouldn't feel lazy if the movies were great, but that wasn't the case. What their absence represented to me was the idea of a departure, not a return to form...he's perfected and bludgeoned his form into a pulp...this looked like it could be fresh.
The end result was not great. The story, as it is told, doesn't have enough to really hold onto. It had me early. The sunniness seemed reminiscent of Big Fish (my second favourite Burton movie after Ed Wood) and the whole movie is stylistically different than the rut he's dug. But, it still didn't work. It's not a bad movie, but where a movie like Ed Wood seemed to know exactly the direction it was going, Big Eyes never finds its true footing. The tones are all over the place. It jumps from romantic drama to physical comedy to near-horror (in a really awful scene with turpentine and matches) and finds its way into absurd courtroom farce. I'm all for mixing moods and ideas, but nothing truly gels here.
Isaac: I agree with your points but I liked it a bit more than you did and I think I have less distaste for Tim Burton's general aesthetic than you do. I wouldn't go as far to say it didn't work, but it didn't have the perfect structure and execution of Ed Wood. It fell short of greatness, or even 'really good' territory. I generally enjoyed watching it, though. Like you said, it has a sunniness to it with more pastels in the palette than Burton usually allows, and that really works with the 60s setting. And I like period pieces, they're always at least fun to watch for the set decoration and costume design. That stuff was all top notch.
The performances are good. A little hammy, but I thought it worked for the tone of the film which almost had a 60s sitcom quality to it. I liked how, in the beginning, the film plays with mixing the happy sunshine vibes with a darkness lurking at the edges. A darkness that slowly envelopes the characters and the visuals as the film goes on. I enjoyed how the tone, pacing, and narrative jumped around but I do agree that it's at its worst when it tries to be a thriller, culminating with the matches scene you mentioned. I was amused by the courtroom scene. Christoph Waltz goes way over the top and I had a lot of fun watching it. I liked how Waltz's silly performance bounced off of Amy Adams' believable, sincere portrayal. To some it might be too all-over-the-place, but it worked for me.
What keeps it from being something great or truly memorable are mostly script problems. Like you said, there isn't enough to grab onto. If I felt like I knew the characters at all, it was more due to the performances than the dialogue, which was flat and overly expository. It felt like a character piece but it was unable to delve very deep into either character. While I didn't mind the constant changes in tone or direction, I didn't care for the way it was structured. It was too much of "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened," more like actors in costumes reading Walter and Margaret Keane's Wikipedia page than a cohesive story. It's a trap a lot of movies based on true stories fall into.
Jason: The biggest problem of the structure isn't necessarily that "this happened, and then this happened." Instead, despite slightly changing tones and the window dressing being slightly different, there was never much forward momentum. Every scene was a bit of a remix of what came before it with Waltz tilting just another notch kookier and less trustworthy. Meanwhile, Adams is done a terrible disservice by being left to do little more than stare, wide-eyed, as her art is stolen from her. While having Margaret become a secondary character in her own story is oddly appropriate thematically, she is pretty much a blank canvas (sorry!).
Maybe I'm being harsh. I never really disliked watching Big Eyes but I never connected with it, and it's a shame because the story is ripe for adaptation. It's compelling, horrifying in its own way, and very human. It could have been a relatable tale reflecting artistic integrity and the magic behind inspiration. Like Walter, the movie seems to not know exactly how to frame Margaret's art. Other than her paintings portraying children with large eyes in impoverished circumstances, is there any more of an attempt to get to know who she is or what her art is all about? I'd say no.
It doesn't happen with all "based on a true story" movies, I loved the recent best picture winner Spotlight, for example. In Big Eyes, I couldn't help but wish I was watching a documentary. For all its aesthetic flare, it felt empty. It needed more. There are some great scenes - the fight with the bar owner, specifically - but as a whole, something felt missing. Burton's films are at their best when his signature style imbues a mundane reality with exaggerated fantasy. Sometimes goes too far, but Big Eyes doesn't go far enough.
Isaac: Yeah that's true. I think it was a balance that he had mastered pretty well in the late 80s/early 90s. Films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman may have flaws (usually less attention paid to the script than the visuals) but they really hit the mark in terms of what I like about Burton. They're flashy, imaginative, surreal, yet grounded in, as you put it, mundane reality. His earlier work always had something to say about society or people and relationships. There was always a message that resonated which made any flaws easy to forgive.
When he started to lose me in the early 2000s, his movies seemed to become style machines, with no interest in reality or making any sort of comment on how we live our lives , like the pod-people version of a Tim Burton movie; soulless, passionless. Maybe he had good reason for that, he is a human being after all, which we film-fans tend to forget about our favourite filmmakers, and all humans are subject to ruts, phases, highs and lows, and just not giving a damn, but I do get the feeling that, as an artist, Burton is trying to get his groove back so to speak. And while I liked it a bit more than you, I do agree that Big Eyes isn't quite the right tempo. But I do think it's a step, however small of one, in the right direction.
What I'd like to see from Burton in the future is a return to the spirit of those early films, but not a full return. There was a magic in his movies once and that needs to be regained, but he's a different person now, some 30 years older than he was in those halcyon days, and his movies should reflect that, which I think Big Eyes at least attempts to. That's why I consider it a nudge in the right direction. But, I'm with you, he needs to stretch it further, the fantasy and magic as well as the realism and richness of theme. The two movies he's done that I think are the best models of where he should be going are Big Fish and Ed Wood. Big Eyes splashes around in their end of the pool but never fearlessly dives in. And that's what I want to see more of from Burton: fearlessness.
Jason: Where I think he can find success is in a real-world setting with the fantastic bleeding in. A modern-day fairy tale through the eyes of a child where the adults are absent, or at least not as present. At his best, he looks at people in arrested development but he's never actually put a child at the center. It has to be an original screenplay, too. No adaptations of classic kids novels or television shows and no biopics. It would be a way of looking at his familiar themes without necessarily repeating himself and he'd have the freedom to take it in the direction he likes without infuriating fans of the source material or being bogged down by expectation.
Those who throw their hands in the air in exasperation, claiming he has nothing left, are laying it on a bit thick, but I understand where they're coming from. He had such a remarkable stretch from the late 80s through the late 90s that such a prolonged drought has to be crushing. It might make fans doubt his talent ever existed or, at the very least, evaporated. I am more optimistic than this. Big Fish was such a wonderful film that the following decade of mediocre-to-bad adaptations felt even more upsetting. You're right that all creative types go through slumps, but Burton's feels like something more. I'm at the point where I'm not convinced he's done or can't rebound, but I'm not expecting it to be much better. I'll give every movie he makes the benefit of the doubt, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Next up, we watch Jason't next pick, The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman. It's a bit of a change up to the formula as Jason has seen the film before and Isaac has not. Occasionally, this will be how we take it. Other times, it's all about the two going in blind.