Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: "Big Eyes" is an Intriguing Biopic on Artistic Ownership and Manufacturing

At its core, Big Eyes is very much a film that director Tim Burton cannot make. While he has played around in the real world before, he has always embraced the kitsch side of everything, choosing to illuminate visuals with sickly colorful landscapes. Ed Wood worked because it mixed this with a director with dreams outside of his talent. Big Eyes is a film predominantly rooted in the real world, which doesn't seem to interest Burton anymore. For those that are complaining that it lacks style because of this, look at it another way. This is Burton showing actual interest in his work. Why else would he tackle a biopic about Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who is as far from eccentric as his catalog gets? It is a film that shouldn't work but kind of does, and that's the fascinating hat trick.

There's plenty of reason to doubt that this is a Burton film. He hasn't ever tried to make a film this grounded. Even then, the colors seem to pop out of the ground with the cinematography displaying the San Francisco hillsides in a child-like way. Everything about this film feels like a painting by way of realism. Even Keane herself seems to have the cliche 50's housewife charm running through her big hair and homely wardrobe. It could easily fall into caricature but instead sees the story of Keane meeting her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) and discovering that he is a better salesman and takes credit for her work. From there, it becomes a disputing drama over authorship, specifically of women in the 60's art scene: one that works, but doesn't sell nearly as much.

Thankfully the film lacks the Burton campiness. However, it also lacks any definitive Danny Elfman score, which comes across as reject tracks from Thomas Newman's work on American Beauty. Even then, the whole package becomes unwholesome when the creepiness of Walter begins to rear its ugly head. The exploration of art becomes a central topic that never bothers with melodramatic tensions and instead chooses to ask "What is inspiration?" Thankfully, the question is never answered and thus leaves us to wonder Margaret's answer. In a cavalcade of topics explored regarding art culture, this is a film that at times feels like an attempt at a magnum opus for Burton and others a retread. He attacks critics and the artificiality of art. There's portions where Burton's history of weirdness seems influential. However, Burton is so distinct that he couldn't do this story justice if he tried to be himself. As a result, the film falls somewhere in the middle.

It isn't a triumphant piece of work, but the film is definitely more focused and interesting than its execution suggests. Amy Adams continues to be a great actress as her Margaret manages to tremble and withhold emotions at various turns. While Waltz falls into the somewhat campy zone when he gets too influenced by old Perry Mason episodes, he still manages to bring a charm that makes this unpolished in the best ways possible. On average, Burton's ear for comedy has been embarrassing in the past. Here, it at least feels serviceable to the story and adds depth to the characters. 

In the end, Big Eyes is a film with a lot of great lofty ideas. It wants to be a film that questions a lot, especially surrounding a very intriguing figure. With good performances and a somewhat nuanced direction, the film manages to feel at odds with itself the entire time. This could be an intentional way to tie into the drama between its central characters. However, the film is nonetheless a fascinating look into Burton trying to make a regular movie that clearly speaks to him. What is to be learned about the artist here? I feel like this is an easy film to undermine. The only difference is that it doesn't feel lazy. It feels ambitious, even if tonally it can feel indistinct. 

Left to right: Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz
I will admit that I am not as big of a Tim Burton fan as those that likely saw this. While he made my Top 10 during The Directors Project this summer, his work lately has been mediocre and very unmemorable. However, I come away with a lot of curiosity as to why he made Big Eyes. There's plenty of excellent elements here, but I rarely felt like I was watching a film that was distinctly his. It felt very normal. Thankfully, it does feature a cast full of great performers that would be hard for me to pass up.

I don't think that it is going to do too well at the Oscars. While I think that Lana Del Rey's "Big Eyes" song was poorly used in the film, it is probably the film's strongest chance at an Oscar in the Best Original Song category. Amy Adams also seems like a lock despite not necessarily giving her best or showiest performance. As much as I feel like she is overdue at this point for a win, she keeps coming up against stiff competition. Julianne Moore in Still Alice has had the Best Actress Oscar locked up for awhile now. 

Still, if this is the Burton that we're getting in the future, it is one that is going to be nonetheless appealing. I don't think that he has made a film capable of getting a Best Picture nomination. At best, it will sneak into the final few candidates. I feel like the unfortunate problem of the moment is that too many films came out at once and this one fell under pressure. With exception to the aforementioned categories, it will likely be ignored big time. I think it's better than its reputation, but I don't know that Burton's is going to exceed that with this one.

Is Amy Adams ever going to win an Oscar? Is Lana Del Rey's "Big Eyes" capable of winning Best Original Song? What other categories can Big Eyes sneak into?

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