Tim Burton’s Monument To Mediocrity
Tim Burton’s directorial style has never been very sophisticated or subtle. That’s fine; neither was Ken Russell’s, but he combined sound and imagery brilliantly. Burton started out with the childlike colour explosions of ‘Pee Wee’s Big Adventure’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’, and only fell down when he reined in his sense of the absurd. ‘Sweeney Todd’ partly defeated him because he never came up with an equivalent sombre style for the piece and lacked the ability to locate its bitter wit.
In ‘Big Eyes’, though, he’s on safer ground and has an interesting forgotten true story to tell – that of ‘Keane’ – Margaret and Walter Keane (played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), who took 1960s art buyers by storm with their horrendous paintings of giant-eyed children.
I say ‘they’, but Margaret was the painter, Walter the charming liar who broke her to the world while taking her identity, to the point where he hid her in the attic to knock out these pastel kitsch eyesores, telling her ‘people don’t buy lady-art’. As their relationship moves from co-dependence to hatred, and Adams learns to step out from behind the frame, her husband remains blinded to the truth; that he needs the world to believe he painted them despite the fact that these daubs are rubbish.
Burton gives us a calm centre in Margaret, the only nuanced performance on display among the eyeball-swivelling scenery-chewing performers, who have to overact to be distinguished from the deafening sixties decor. But the style is appropriate to the subject, even if Waltz’s Perry Mason-styled courtroom scene goes too far over the top.
However, Burton sidesteps the interesting questions; does Margaret’s art have any intrinsic value? Would she have found success without a driven, desperate partner? Why should male and female art be regarded so differently? Instead he concentrates on a simple female empowerment story. The film would have had more resonance if Burton could have shown why America fell in love with such awful paintings. Instead, it feels like a companion piece to ‘Isn’t She Great?’, in which Bette Midler played the talentless Jacqueline Susann, driven by her husband to fame and fortune – they’d make a great double bill.