Early in Big Eyes, the artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), later known as Keane, hawks her sentimental paintings of wide-eyed children in a San Francisco park. Struggling to generate much interest in an art world dominated by abstract expressionism and insipid Parisian streetscapes, Margaret, a single mother on the lam from a failed marriage, is reduced to selling sketches for mere pocket change. “Cute,” her sole buyer comments, though he may as well be describing Tim Burton’s anodyne biopic: Almost inconceivably, the mastermind behind such macabre fantasies as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas manages to turn his subject’s populist kitsch into a humdrum, paint-by-numbers portrait of midcentury Americana.
Big Eyes focuses primarily on Margaret’s relationship with her abusive, tyrannical second husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a self-styled cosmopolitan whose only successful art is that of the con. As imagined by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Walter, who steals the credit for Margaret’s work and then imprisons her in a series of studios to sustain the lucrative market for Big Eyes memorabilia, is a particularly repellent expression of postwar masculinity. “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art,” he remarks, though the fact that his performance as the uncompromising artist is instrumental in making his wife’s curiosities a national phenomenon goes largely unexamined.
Indeed, by hewing to biographical template, the script evades nuanced engagement with the notion that “art” must be unpopular, political, and manly, preferring instead to lay blame for Margaret’s underappreciation at the feet of her singularly shitty husband. Big Eyes thus succeeds in whittling down the vigorous feminism of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which argues that systemic discrimination against women leads to the devaluation of their talent and their art, until the ideologies that shape Margaret’s tortured career vanish from view. The raft of supple notions shadowing the edges of the frame—about highbrow and lowbrow, the canon and consumer culture, the gendered definition of “art”—is rich with possibility, yet Big Eyes never quite musters the courage to confront these difficult questions head-on. It is, ultimately, a timid, inconsequential film, always following its own worst instincts.
This is the result, perhaps, of the shiftless direction. In style as in content, Big Eyes offers neither the granular detail of more subtle period pieces, such as Mad Men and Masters of Sex, nor enough of Burton’s spirited eccentricity to register as anything other than what one character derides as “that representational jazz.” Rather, the film strikes an uncomfortable balance between realism and caricature; against Adams’s earnest, affecting portrayal of Margaret’s suffering, Jason Schwartzman’s snooty, faintly comic art dealer and Terence Stamp’s pitiless critic seem to inhabit another universe. As such, while the surfeit of arrogant pricks succeeds in illustrating the film’s ardent, admirable resistance to the received wisdom of misogynist, elitist cultural commentators, the thin characterization reflects the shallowness of the script’s approach to broader social issues. Big Eyes doesn’t attempt to untangle the complicated relationship between popularity and critical acclaim, or the gendered aspects thereof, so much as it establishes and eviscerates a series of straw men—a jarring, unsatisfying gambit, given that Burton so thoroughly downplays the film’s satirical elements.
Even on the more intimate terrain of Margaret’s lived experience, Big Eyes seems leached of inspiration. Fleeting, imaginative gestures at the connection between Margaret’s plight and her “creepy, maudlin, amateurish” paintings, to quote one patron, nod halfheartedly at her psychological distress, but Burton quickly scuttles these startling images to return to the commonplace story of one woman’s triumph over adversity. Though Adams, with her blue, beseeching eyes, and Waltz, flashing his devilish smirk, both shine, the sparks emitted as Margaret’s quiet resignation collides with Walter’s exuberant malice cannot catch fire in the film’s stifling atmosphere. Indeed, the great irony is that the filmmakers attempt to recall the craze for Keane, whose art features an unsettling combination of the saccharine and the sinister, by dispensing with both. “It’s like a mirage,” Margaret tells Walter. “From a distance you look like a painter, but up close there’s just not much there.” The same could be said of Big Eyes.