When we talk about “story” in my film class, we often talk about how much it means to American moviegoers and how little it can mean to filmgoers from other cultures. Many students come into class professing that their sole interest in the film is the story. While that changes by the end of the semester—one of my goals for the class—story is sometimes the one thing that holds a film together.
Case in point: Big Eyes. It could and should have been so much more. Amy Adams and two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as the two leads. Consummate stylist Tim Burton directing. None of those elements really work. What does is the amazing and true story of Margaret and Walter Keane, she who created all those “big eye” paintings and he who marketed them and took credit for their creation. The story is the glue that just holds the various parts together—parts that never add up to a coherent whole.
It’s a David-and-Goliath story of sorts. She is shy but has something of a talent. He is anything but shy and has a talent for schmoozing and marketing. The screenplay provides a few “reasons” why she would allow him to take credit for her work, but nothing adequately explains her continued acquiescence to the scam. Yes, we’re told she rushed into the marriage because he was in need of support for her and her son. He is clearly presented as the brains behind the business success of the paintings, something the film makes clear she could never have accomplished on her own.
But even after the feel-good final scenes and the victory, we are left with some confusion. Why did she take so long to stand up to her husband? Why did she put up with his abusive behavior, aside from the Big Lie?
The film doesn’t make that clear, and neither does Adams’ performance. Apparently Adams hesitated doing the film for a while because she didn’t feel she could get into the character of someone who was so (apparently) easily used. She was right. She couldn’t. Adams is such a sympathetic actress, especially in parts like this, that we take her side from get-go. She hits the beats required of her by the action, but she never locks down on a character we can understand and, yes, fully respect.
Waltz, never one to be afraid of chewing any furniture on the set, here overreaches the entire time. While Adams is a soft and naturalistic presence in most films (even when she’s trying not be), Waltz almost can’t seem to help going bigger than life. On paper this might have worked for the enthusiastic salesperson that was Walter Keane. But Waltz never lets up, and it’s just too much.
Burton, of course, is something of a legend, but look at this previous work: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Dark Shadows. Not much of an emphasis on naturalism or anything from a woman’s point of view. That’s one reason some people were excited to see what Burton would do with such a different story—and one based on real events. Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Beetleuice 2 are his next announced works, and perhaps that tells us something.
Burton succeeds in creating something of a slightly cartoonish version of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and that is consistent throughout. If he’s taking his cue from the paintings or his own view of that time and place, it works. The tone, however, is all over the place. There is one Burtonesque seen for those fans looking for evidence that this is a Burton film, but it’s jarring and seems out of place.
Between a story that’s both amazing and strange, Adams’ sweet, soft and slightly unfocused performance, and Waltz’s one-note high-intensity, Big Eyes is a mixture of elements that only barely coalesces. This time, however, the story is strong enough to contain the multi-directional acting and unsure direction. Even with those three artists at work, the story is still the best reason to see it.