At first glance, Tim Burton’s latest fills you with hope. After a decade mostly churning out blockbusters from either children’s books, TV shows, musicals or movies, this true story offers a reunion with Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriters behind one of his best, 1994’s Ed Wood. Shot by Bruno Delbonnel, Burton’s Dark Shadows DoP who did such a bang-up job lensing the Coen Brothers’ wintry Inside Llewyn Davis, it doesn’t even star Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.
Like Ed Wood, it’s another 1950s California tale about bad art, at least in some (big) eyes. Margaret (Amy Adams) is a divorcee mother who gets a second shot at happiness, marrying the charming Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). They’re both would-be artists; while he paints Paris streets, she daubs pictures of children with large doe eyes (“like big stale jelly beans,” scoffs Jason Schwartzman’s gallery owner). Signing her paintings under her new married name ‘Keane’, Margaret’s work begins to sell, with a little help from Walter.
Yet in an era when “people don’t buy lady art”, as Walter puts it, he passes his spouse’s paintings off as his own, even licensing prints. As a result, a guilt-ridded Margaret becomes trapped inside a million-dollar lie she helped create.
Adams is as watchable as ever as Margaret, backed by fine support, but the problem lies with Waltz. He’s more caricature than character, and Burton proves unable to harness his energy as well as Tarantino did. While the final Honolulu-set act adds to the notion that “this is a very strange case”, Big Eyes doesn’t raise it above the everyday.