Monday, January 05, 2015

Big Eyes (2014)

With BIG EYES, Tim Burton demonstrates again his knack for telling stories about outsiders operating on their own wavelength. Scripted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski -- the screenwriting team behind Burton's 1994 masterpiece ED WOOD, BIG EYES is an intriguing examination of the relationship and subsequent legal battles between artist Margaret Keane, whose portraits of big-eyed children became a phenomenal success in the early 1960s, and her husband Walter, who fraudulently claimed credit for her work for decades.

Amy Adams turns in a fine performance as Margaret, managing to depict the character as sympathetic without being pathetic. As Walter, Christoph Waltz delivers a tour-de-force performance that must be seen to be believed, deftly veering between impeccable charm and absolutely off-the-rails lunacy with expert precision. I was not familiar with Waltz's work prior to his performance in Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but on the strength of his work for Tarantino and now for Burton here, he has emerged as one of the most unique, offbeat -- and undeniably, immensely talented -- actors in recent memory.

When we first meet Walter in BIG EYES, he is so perfectly charming that it hints at something darker beneath the surface, due to its sheer unnaturalness. As little details begin to emerge that give lie to his story of his past -- studying art in Paris, a failed painting career -- there is an overwhelming sense of dread at what else might lie behind the facade. Slowly his sociopathic behavior emerges, and by the time he goes fully off the deep end -- nearly setting fire to the house and alienating his wife and daughter for good -- Waltz elevates the performance to a level of unbridled lunacy that is at once hilarious and terrifying. His scene in the final courtroom sequence, in which he acts as both a witness and his own legal counsel, recalls Woody Allen's similar turn in BANANAS -- except that this is based on real incidents, making it even more ludicrous.

From this description, one might assume that Amy Adams has little to do with her role in comparison, but far from being overshadowed by Waltz, she handles her character with remarkable control and compassion, expertly playing in contrast to the madcap energy that Waltz exudes. Adams -- and the script -- wisely avoid portraying Margaret as a complacent victim. We can almost understand why she would accept her husband's early explanation of why he is taking credit for her paintings, since it is his gift for self-promotion that makes them a hit in the first place, and any misgivings are understandably eased when the money begins to roll in. However, by the time it becomes clear that Walter's apparent promotional strategy is actually a symptom of a much more insidious intention to build his entire reputation as an artist on his wife's work -- driven by delusion about his own failings -- it is too late for Margaret to claim her rightful credit without exposing the entire scheme as fraud, and facing the potential legal consequences of such a revelation (not to mention the loss of their financial stability). Still, there is a real sense of tragedy beneath the surface in Adams' portrayal of an artist whose work is enthusiastically embraced by so many, but who must toil away in secret, unable to enjoy the accolades and recognition she deserves.

Stylistically, the film is one of Burton's most subdued in recent memory, which is not to say it's not visually distinctive. Only that compared with the fantasy worlds of some of his most memorable work, the period throwback of BIG EYES is understated and restrained in comparison. The sprawling northern California suburban neighborhood that features in the film's opening shot recalls the similar neighborhood in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and, as in that film, seems to exist in a kind of time warp due to the self-conscious stylization of the period setting. Indeed, much of the film -- though the years in which it takes place are explicitly stated on-screen -- seems to exist in that kind of twilight zone between the '50s and the present that Burton uses so effectively in other of his films, most notably PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE.

Indeed, it is this stylization of both the design and the acting that makes BIG EYES so unique, and that allows it to work as well as it does, as it provides just enough sense that we are one step removed from the universe of the film to view it with a sort of detached bemusement. As in ED WOOD, Burton celebrates an artist obliviously but sincerely working outside of the accepted notions of talent and taste, and indeed seems to make the point that it doesn't much matter what others think of the work as long as it fulfills the artist's desire to create. In one scene, an old-school art critic dismisses Keane's paintings as "Kitsch", but of course, that is precisely what Burton seems to love about them, and what he makes us appreciate in them, too.

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