You know you’ve really made it as a filmmaker in Hollywood when your name is used to describe not just a sub-genre but an entire style of filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock. Stanley Kubrick. Woody Allen. Quentin Tarantino. Their names alone evoke not just a style but a mood, a feeling, a promise that when the lights go down in that theater or aircraft cabin you’re in for the kind of singular cinematic experience that only they can deliver. While some filmmakers take years to find their voice, Oscar-nominated writer-director Tim Burton seems to have emerged from the womb with his distinctly off-kilter world view fully intact.
Dark, quirky, gothic and weirdly wonderful, Burton’s visionary oeuvre has influenced generations of young artists and filmmakers over the past 30 years. So much so that the word “Burtonesque” has actually become an adjective in creative circles. And with Burtonesque movies, TV shows, commercials, comic books, toys and even novels flooding the marketplace, sometimes it’s hard to tell an actual Tim Burton project from a knockoff.
So, when Burton announced that he would be re-teaming with Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to direct and produce Big Eyes – a biopic on Margaret Keane, the popular mid-century painter who fought a lengthy legal battle with her ex-husband Walter over who was the real artist behind her iconic paintings of big eyed children – it seemed like a match made in movie heaven. Who better than Burton to understand the anguish of having your life’s work celebrated, copied and then ultimately ripped off by soulless hacks?
Unfortunately, the soulless hacks may have won this round. Bland, bloodless and borderline boring, Big Eyes might just be Burton’s worst film since his ill-fated Planet of the Apes reboot in 2001. And yes, I’m including 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps Big Eyes’ biggest sin is that it takes a juicy, genuinely strange story about the art world’s Queen of Kitsch finding the strength to stand up to the pricks who are trying to keep her down (mainly the one she married!) and drains the entire proceedings of any fun, B-movie vividness it might have had. Even in its standout moments – of which there is exactly one: a surreal painting scene set to Lana del Ray’s sumptuous title track – Big Eyes is limp and lifeless in the extreme. The biopic beats are there, the structure is solid, but even the film’s milky/pastel color palette seems like a mistake. It’s as if legions of vampires and ghouls from Burton’s previous work drained the film of it’s essence and lifeblood during the editing process.
Even the acting is colorless in Big Eyes. And when you have talented, award-season darlings like Amy Adams and Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz on your call sheet, that’s really saying something. While Adams’ natural star wattage peeks through her gloomy, sad-sack take on Keane in spots, Waltz projects such obvious bad guy oiliness from the get-go that you half expect him to wax his mustache and snarl at the camera between scenes.
Aside from his genuinely heartfelt work in Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, I’ve never found Burton to be a particularly warm filmmaker, but his best movies have so many other wonderful moving parts that humanity and warmth hardly matter. Here though, Burton’s inability to illicit real emotion onscreen is glaringly obvious and since the other moving parts are just more of the same Burtonesque schtick we’ve seen before, what you end up with, ironically enough, is something that feels more like a soulless knockoff than a Burton original. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me sadder than one of Margaret Keane’s weepy, big eyed paintings ever could.
Big Eyes is playing on select Air France, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa flights throughout the month and is also available to streaming on Google Play, M-GO and iTunes.