Saturday, February 21, 2015

BIG EYES Is Burton at His Best

BIG EYES Review:

- You could say that BIG EYES is a bit of a departure for director Tim Burton. It's a live-action film that takes place squarely in the real-world - in fact, it's the true story of Margaret Keane - an artist whose best-known work was credited to her husband and not to her. There hasn't really been a Burton film like this one since Ed Wood, and in some ways, BIG EYES is its spiritual successor. Both celebrate artists who Burton clearly views as inspirations - cultural outcasts who were panned by critics yet celebrated by their devoted fans - iconoclasts who paved their own way and whose work was defiantly, willfully weird. It's not hard to see how Burton's own trademark animated art style was likely influenced by Keane. And it's also not hard to see how the director - so often (and often unfairly) panned for peddling mass-marketed weirdness might feel empathy for Margaret Keane and her popular series of "big eyes" paintings. Both Keane and Burton peddle pop-art weirdness. But Keane's story has another dimension that Burton's own does not: the fact that her work, for years, was falsely attributed to her publicity-hungry husband. So yes, BIG EYES is in some ways a change from the type of Burton movie we've seen in recent years, but it's also brimming with the sorts of themes that have long captivated him. At its core is the premise that beneath a picture-perfect facade of domestic tranquility and the American dream lies a more disturbing truth. Getting back to that central, personal theme - and not having to deal with the demands of a big-budget blockbuster - seem to have reinvigorated the director. It's his best film in years.

Amy Adams kills it as Margaret Keane. Her journey is that of a woman realizing her strength as an individual. At first, Margaret is somewhat shy, lacking confidence in her work. Only once meeting the flamboyant huckster Walter does she start to see her work's potential. The sad irony is that Walter is all too eager to co-opt her success once her "big eyes" paintings take off. What starts as a small lie from Walter - that he was the artist who had signed "Keane" on a big eyes painting - soon expands to become a full-on Big Lie. Walter gains fame and fortune from his wife's paintings, and Margaret is left to paint in secret, locked up in a hidden room of their home like a medieval prisoner locked away in a tower. But it's a joy to watch the always-great Adams find the courage to challenge her husband, and to increasingly open her eyes to the fact that he's a first-class con-artist.

As Walter, Christoph Waltz goes big. He's animated and over-the-top, and totally entertaining. He perhaps goes a little too big at times, giving Walter an almost cartoon-villain aspect. But the performance works, because Burton paints Walter's journey as a slow descent into madness. The Big Lie is all he has, so when that begins to unravel, so too does he. And really, who better to watch descend into madness than Christoph by-god Waltz?

Burton isn't afraid to give BIG EYES a slightly surreal sheen. It takes place in a day-glo mid-century America, so bright and sun-bathed that it can only be a facade for darker things underneath. And as Margaret struggles with her secret, she is haunted by nightmarish visions of her own big-eyes paintings. The paintings themselves are the kind of pop-goth oddity that seem like early precursors to, well, the Tim Burtons of the world. The fact that they become so popular is the sort of unlikely success story that mirrors Burton's own strange works that went on to entrench themselves in the pop-cultural mainstream.

Burton at his worst can feel like he's simply on cruise control - going through the motions and delivering what's expected of him and not much more. But here, he seems motivated and personally connected to the story being told. BIG EYES is a film about empowerment, but it's also a film about owning eccentricity and creativity. Walter can't generate art by himself, and so he doesn't truly understand the direct, personal relationship between the artist and their artwork. He sees art only as commodity to be exploited. And it's when that happens that diverse voices are shut down or shut out, because too often diversity is viewed as being not what's best for business. In BIG EYES, we get a great story about a woman finding and laying claim to her artistic voice. The side benefit is seeing a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic voice in Tim Burton once again doing the same.

My Grade: A-

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