Review: Big Eyes (2014)

Just because a story features a creative misfit, doesn’t make it one Tim Burton is able to tell.

I feel like in the hands of another director, Big Eyes could be the story of how one woman reclaims, or even discovers, her own identity by clawing her way out from under the oppressive thumb of an abusive husband and a blinkered society. The key moments in Keane’s character arc involve themes of identity, emotional abuse, and cognitive dissonance. But director Tim Burton doesn’t seem interested in, or even to get, that.

Instead, he seems to treat it like the latest iteration of the story he’s always told: quiet, creative misfit is misunderstood / misrepresented / treated as a threat by laughably conservative, whitebread, atomic-age suburbia. Most other films of his (think Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish), are fables in fantasy settings with quirky, cartoony characters – and your suspension of disbelief is a requisite part of your enjoyment of stories that are ultimately celebrations of imagination. But ‘Big Eyes’, based on a true story, takes place in our real world, and isn’t exactly allegorical. The characters can’t be caricatures, and the emotional truth of their actions has to be earned – only the announcement that this is a “true story” made me even try to believe these things happened as portrayed here.

I don’t want to pigeonhole Tim Burton (or any artist, really), especially because it’s so easy (and possibly lazy) to do so in his case. Unfortunately, Big Eyes makes it difficult to avoid doing so.

The underused daughter character could have helped tell this story in so much more of a human way. Instead, she’s the big eyes no-one (including the film) actually acknowledges

The scene where Keane lies to her daughter – and to herself – about her art is incredibly dark and telling of the rock bottom she’s hit, or is about to hit. Likewise, the scene where Keane first confronts her husband – and herself – with the truth she has worked so long and hard to deny should be terrifying, for us and especially for her. Yet in this scene, her character seems possessed of a measured clarity and quiet strength that seem neither earned nor telling.

And why do I find this “true story” so hard to believe? I think it’s that I don’t believe the characters – and these are really good actors who should be perfect for these roles. I’ve seen Christoph Waltz be charismatic and terrifying – and yet here he’s merely sleazy and desperate, and only those things from the beginning, instead of unfolding or unravelling into them. I’ve seen Amy Adams be many things – but here she simply looks like an actress wearing a wig in a movie. Her character’s ultimate triumph is neither emotional nor psychological – instead, Adams’ quiet, misunderstood artist literally wins by quietly making art. This is exactly the same as the endings of the examples I mentioned: Scissorhands retreats to his home to create ice scultpures and snow; Big Fish Jr learns the power of imaginative storytelling, and finishes his father’s story.

Why take so long, and yet fail to do any of the really important character work necessary to make this story engaging, or even believable?

At the end of this film (and this is not a spoiler), a reporter contends that “the two most important things to (Keane) were her daughter and her art”. While the art part has been shown to be true, her daughter isn’t actually shown to be all that important at all. Of the handful of scenes they actually share, the real story of their journey is told, not shown, in two lines – one of which is said by Adams to Waltz, in a scene her daughter isn’t even in. Whether to better portray the relationship arc with her mother, or to provide support for her mother’s eventual reconsititution, the underused daughter character could helped tell this story in so much more of a human way. Instead, she’s the big eyes no-one (including the film) actually acknowledges (which also didn’t help me to shake my initial thought that in actress Madeleine Arthur, Burton had found his new Christina Ricci).

Finally: this movie is SO. LONG. The first hour of this movie would have been the first 15 minute’s of Scorcese’s – and he still would have had 2 hours more, and we would have been thrilled all the way. We know where the story’s going – so get there! Why take so long, and yet fail to do any of the really important character work necessary to make this story engaging, or even believable?

Just because the story involves a character who is creative and feels like a misfit, doesn’t mean this story is about someone who is creative and feels like a misfit – and it certainly doesn’t automatically make it a story that Tim Burton is able to tell.