A success because of its weird plot — not because of much insight into its characters, Big Eyes is a compelling movie that could have been even more so had it explored its characters more in depth. Based on real events, it tells the story of Margaret (Amy Adams) and Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), although it tells us very little about either individual. It does, indeed, show us what happened between then — with nothing left to interpretation — but outside of a few points stays clear of the “why.”
Margaret begins the film leaving her husband, which in the 1950s wasn’t something a woman could really do. She supports herself and her daughter by working in a factory and doing caricatures on the streets on the weekend. It’s there that she meets Walter, who is selling paintings for dozens of times more than she sells hers. A date and a marriage proposal later, and they become married. They live happily together, although whenever their works are displayed, it’s always Margaret’s that get sold. Walter, being the male, is the one to sell them. He tells people that they are his.
Margaret reluctantly agrees to let him do this, after she’s told that nobody takes woman’s art seriously. So, Walter gets the fame, the recognition, and the money. They get to live comfortably as a result, even though the lie eventually grows and grows. Whether you’re familiar with the real story or not, you can probably see the exact direction in which it’s headed. The only question is how it will end. Will Margaret finally break off from this relationship and take credit for what’s hers? Will Walter find a way to stop this from happening? Or will the lie continue forever?
Well, it’s obviously not the last one, since Big Eyes is a movie that you can see. If nobody ever found out about Walter and Margaret’s lie, the movie wouldn’t have been made. What might surprise you is who made the movie. This is a Tim Burton production, although it doesn’t star his usual cast members and its only truly weird element — outside of the story — is how partway through the film, Margaret begins to see people with eyes as big as the ones she paints.
Yes, it’s a step in a different direction for Burton, and it is also his best film since Sweeney Todd. Had it actually explored Margaret’s psyche a touch more — no, seeing people with large eyes is not psychological exploration or depth — then perhaps it would even be a great movie. What it lacks is the reasoning behind the lie. Margaret tries to reveal all late in the movie, but the humorous theatrics Walter pulls right around the same time remove any weight that the revelation might have.
In fact, at times it feels like Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams are acting in different movies, or are being told to act completely the opposite. Waltz, with the smile of a con man, hams it up to the nth degree, and while funny, is far too over-the-top for a “real” story. Meanwhile, Adams plays her role so seriously that you can almost see her telling us that she wants another Oscar nomination. The styles clash and hurt each other. Waltz can be quite as fun as he wants to, and Adams can’t be as serious.
The result is a weird blend of comedy and drama that is moderately effective at both but not as much at either as it could have been. The aforementioned scene where Margaret tries to explain herself happens in a courtroom, and it’s in the courtroom that the film jumps the shark completely. You realize at this point that Burton just isn’t interested in telling this story seriously. All of the earlier laughs were an attempt at restraint; he’s laughing at the plot, and the only person he let in on the joke is Waltz.
Big Eyes is a weird movie, but not for the reason you expect given that its director is Tim Burton. Its plot is odd on its own, but the way it was treated was also strange. The two leads don’t take the same type of direction in their acting, our director can’t seem to restrain himself from laughing at the whole situation, and there’s an unfortunate lack of depth to everything that happens. It’s still worth seeing, as it’s quite enjoyable, but it has some significant issues that are difficult to overlook.