Less Than Meets, by Matt Warren
I guess I take it for granted that Tim Burton and Rivers Cuomo are best friends. I mean, technically I’m not sure if they’ve ever even met. But the pairing makes perfect sense. Just imagine: Big Eyes auteur Burton and mercurial Weezer frontman Cuomo yucking it up over a Singapore Slings at Trader Vic’s, commiserating about all the Asians they’ve ejaculated onto and meticulously mapping out their shared master plan for unlikely Entertainment Industry longevity. A plan to reshape their artistic mediums in the early 1990s with formidable inspiration and originality, followed with two straight decades of aggressive sub-mediocrity. “We’ll coast on the inventiveness and authenticity of our early work forever!” I imaging them chanting, pounding the tiki tabletops with ivory fists, “May our brands generate ancillary revenue for our conglomerate overlords for a thousand years!”
So let me get this out of the way: Big Eyes, Burton’s biopic of 20th Century kitsch artist Margaret Keane and the weird controversy surrounding the misattribution of her work to her ex-husband Walter Keane, is fine. At 90 well-paced minutes it’s a perfectly average, mildly interesting viewing experience. The most interesting thing about it is its director. Devoid of Burton’s usual visual tics, Eyes is is by far the auteur’s least weird movie ever. Only the subject matter of Keane’s paintings themselves—a series of aesthetically vulgar, half-cartoon waifs sporting the movie’s titular damp, enormous orbitals—betrays the fact that this tale is the product of the same brain that conjured “Oyster Boy” into existence.
Big Eyes begins with Margaret’s divorce from an unseen starter husband in the mid-1950s. Wth young daughter Jane (Delaney Rayne) in tow, Margaret hurriedly packs a few things and flees their bucolic Northern California suburb for the mean streets of San Francisco. And my “mean streets” I mean “cuddly bohemian paradise,” so nonthreatening is Burton’s depiction of the city. And while he may suck at everything else these days, the Burbank Bloodsucker can still photograph an exterior like no one else in Hollywood.
Margaret struggles to get her tacky-yet-distinctive artwork out to a disinterested public while working a series of odd illustrator jobs. Soon, she meets, falls in love with, and weds Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a charismatic, wannabe artist and low-grade con man. Naturally, Walt can’t believe it’s his wife with all the talent—not him. So he cooks up an unlikely scheme to take public credit for Margaret’s work while she toils in secret. Margaret, the self-doubting doormat, reluctantly accepts. Lo and behold, it works.
Tensions mount as the deception snowballs out of control. Walter and Margaret’s marriage falters, growing more and more tenuous with each new mass-produced “Big Eyes” one-sheet flying off the shelves in the Keane Gallery gift shop. It’s all plotted out believably, building to a few intense domestic moments that let Burton explore what it might be like to direct thrillers. Eventually, the story culminates in an unlikely court case that, while pretty fucking unbelievable, apparently happened in real life. Truth = stranger than fiction.
There’s a lot of meaty thematic subject matter here, from institutionalized sexism, to the fluid nature of creative authorship, to the arbitrary distinction between “good” and “bad” art. Unfortunately Burton is not a sophisticated person—at least not as is expressed through his filmmaking—and is poorly equipped to deal with any idea more complicated or adult than his usual Edward Scissorhands “Romantic Outsider” jazz. He doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp on the sociological complexities of the story he’s trying to tell here. And as an Outsider, Margaret Keane is pretty weak sauce. The way Adams is directed to play her, she’s normcore to the point of complete invisibility. Which, I guess you could argue, is sort of the point.
Big Eyes was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the scribes behind Burton’s best and most grown-up movie, 1994’s Ed Wood. In many ways, Eyes feels like an unsuccessful attempt to recapture some of that old Plan 9 magic. But while Margaret Keane and Edward D. Wood Jr. may be partners in critically reviled kitsch, they’re hardly equal as protagonists. Ed Wood was a manic extrovert whose personality shone through in every frame of his terrible movies. Margaret Keane is a taciturn housewife who doesn’t even seem connected to her art’s inherent weirdness in any real or convincing way.
Big Eyes is a big swing as far as Burton’s career goes. Unfortunately, the only eyeballs likely to be bugging out of peoples’ skulls during the film are the ones in the canvases onscreen. The ones in the audience will either be glazed over or hidden behind eyelids, surrounded by the sound of snoring.