I wanted to title this review “Big Eyes Is a Big Disappointment,” because the symmetry of such a headline makes my heart sing. Alas, Big Eyes isn’t a big disappointment. Tim Burton’s latest isn’t Exodus or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Left Behind. It’s not awful. It’s just… not good.
Let’s start with the parts where Big Eyes delivers: The film is beautifully shot, with two-time Burton collaborator and four-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Inside Llewyn Davis) capturing ephemeral, sunny California in a way more visually reminiscent of Big Fish than 2012’s Dark Shadows (his other collaboration with Burton). Burton has a good eye for story: The life of Margaret Keane, an artist whose husband Walter took credit for her work because it was olden times and women couldn’t do things for themselves (more on that later), is ripe for a movie. I’m surprised one hasn’t been made before.
And, finally, Amy Adams, which barely needs saying at this point. Amy Adams is in a film. Amy Adams is amazing in the film. Give her an Oscar already. QED.
Alas, in Big Eyes, what Amy Adams is amazing at doing is… not much. For the first three-quarters of the film, Margaret is a passive character in her own story, sitting off to the side being distressed and morally conflicted while her husband (Christoph Waltz) grows increasingly megalomaniacal. This is because women, as a completely unnecessary voiceover from Danny Huston informs us, didn’t have it easy in the ’50s. And that’s true. But I still don’t particularly enjoy seeing Christoph Waltz be a jackass to Amy Adams for an hour before she finally starts taking action. The final act, by the time it rolls around, is anticlimactic, because you’ve been sitting there, frustrated, waiting for Adams to do something besides look like she’s going to cry, and then it just kind of… takes a few minutes and ends.
What Burton should have done, aside from “cut the damn portentous voiceover that tells us things you should be showing us,” was make Big Eyes‘ third act into the whole movie, with flashbacks to flesh out the necessary backstory. Anything to better take advantage of Adams’ acting chops and the incredible story of how Margaret ended up defending herself. Instead, we get endless scenes of a manic narcissist Waltz as the movie’s non-Johnny Depp Johnny Depp. It’s like he and Adams were in completely different movies.
His performance was good, but that sort of thing has more impact when it’s used in moderation (see Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl vs On Stranger Tides). We needed less of him and more of Adams. Less of their early years when Walter steamrolls Margaret with impunity, more of their later years when she begins fighting back. (Seriously, if your character does an about-face due to a conversion to being a Jehovah’s Witness, I want to know about that.) Less of Walter and the reporter (Huston) who helped create “his” legend, more of Margaret and her daughter, which, though presented as the defining relationship in her life, only carries the emotional weight we’re told it’s supposed to in a few scenes.
Ultimately, Big Eyes is a forgettable film, with only one scene that I think will stand the test of time: Walter confronts stuffy New York Times art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) in a scene that unintentionally parallels a similar interaction between Michael Keaton’s washed-up actor and Lindsay Duncan’s bloodless film critic in Birdman. The twist here is that the “critics are only people who can’t create!” argument—which a distinctly unimpressed Canaday dismisses as “That old, moldy chestnut”—takes on an extra layer of stupidity when the person slinging it doesn’t create their art either. And then Waltz tries to stab Stamp in the eye with a fork, for that extra Burton touch.