Tim Burton’s Big Eyes could be lumped in with the count-em-three other biographical movies opening on Christmas Day, being that it’s Burton’s first true-ish story since Ed Wood twenty years ago. But it’s also a reunion with Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, which (for some, at least) shifts the focus from the biography of painter Margaret Keane to the narrative of Burton’s career, which, per conventional wisdom, just hasn’t been the same since, well, take your pick: Sleepy Hollow in ’99, Mars Attacks! in ’96 (his critically disliked flop that at some point became part of his good old days) or yes, Ed Wood, the masterpiece some non-fans seem to love at least in part out of hate for every outright fantasy he’s made since.
Big Eyes is not Ed Wood—not as loopy, not as moving, not as perfect a movie about the making of its beautifully questionable art—and as such may provide further fodder for condescending thinkpieces about what happened to Burton (quick answer: since his supposed prime he’s made, let’s see, a family drama with fantastical elements, a dark musical, a nearly unclassifiable horror-soap comedy, and some family films whose worst crimes are the ease with which they fit into his wheelhouse). But it accompanies Wood and Edward Scissorhands as a portrait of Burton’s native California: sunny pop-art sprawl with undercurrents of dysfunction and menace.
Margaret (Amy Adams) arrives in that California, specifically San Francisco, as a single mother and aspiring painter. She meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) at a street art fair where she’s peddling caricatures and drawings featuring her signature children with big, sad-looking eyes. Walter, a smooth talker, flatters her work; they being a whirlwind courtship predicated at least in part, per this telling, on Margaret’s desire for stability. In the midst of a scheme to display his and her paintings in a popular bar, Margaret’s work is mistaken for Walter’s, and he seems constitutionally unable to correct the assumption, especially as the paintings start to sell. His oily ambition meets cute with his wife’s work, and become inseparable.
The movie follows the Keanes as “their” work becomes more and more popular, and as the lie eats away at Margaret. It’s a low-key role for the often-ebullient Adams, requiring her to stand by in quivery silence for many scenes, but she wrings a lot of pathos from that quiet. For a few years, it seemed as if any Adams character would have to be defined by her innate decency, but she played tougher broads in The Fighter, The Master, and last year’s American Hustle, and brings that depth to what could have been a simple plucky-heroine throwback. Lowering her voice slightly and letting sadness creep into her winning smile, she conveys the turmoil and eventually paranoia of a seemingly innocuous lie. Burton recognizes the comic irony and sincere disquiet that comes with anonymously churning out these cutesy paintings: sometimes Margaret looks around and sees nothing but big eyes staring at her, dramatized in a hallucinatory supermarket scene. Burton has plenty of characters articulate why many consider these paintings kitsch nightmares, but he doesn’t judge the work any more than he judged Ed Wood’s spectacular lack of technical talent, and his version of Keane becomes poignant. Early on, she admits her daughter Jane is the model for her work, freighting her work with a potent sense of loneliness: “All my paintings are of Jane because she’s all I know.”
As Margaret works up the nerve to lash back at a smarmy, controlling Walter (Waltz, so often lazily cast as a villain, plays a more insidious sort of bad man here), Burton and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel compose shot after striking shot in California pastel hues, from the way Adams’ lipstick pops out of the frame to a shot of her face against her husband’s banal European street-scene painting. The juxtaposition of tones that was so funny but off-balance in Dark Shadows feels more controlled here; in one particular sequence within the Keanes’ home and in a few other scattered moments, the movie resembles a canted-angle thriller, as if taking place during an elongated transition between 1950s suburbia, 1960s pop art, and 1970s debauchery (appropriate, then, that the movie compresses thirty-plus years of events into about a decade).
Big Eyes is a small movie— only Margaret and Walter are afforded much development, even when it seems like Jane should feature more prominently than she does, and the occasional intrusion of Danny Huston narration, in its tendency to explain the obvious (such as: things really were quite different for women back then!), rings with the suspicions tones of a Weinstein mandate. It would be a mistake, I think, to praise this as a more personal movie from Burton, because I doubt that Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were any less so. But it does serve as a reminder that his talent can pull the bizarre and surreal into everyday life, not just build worlds around them.
Given the involvement of the Disney studio, a cracked-fairy-tale aesthetic, and Johnny Depp, it’s a little bit surprising that Burton didn’t wind up directing Into the Woods; on film, he even has more Sondheim experience than supposed musical specialist Rob Marshall. The resulting film has less visual imagination than a Burton version would—or, for that matter, than any number of less musically oriented but more cinematically adept filmmakers might have produced. The woods where fairy-tale characters intersect is larger and more detailed than it often appears on stage, but Marshall doesn’t really open up the staging; it still consists of a lot of coincidental path-crossing that works fine on stage but feels small on screen. Only a couple of the musical numbers turn the new environment into an advantage. For every well-realized sequence, like time freezing around Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) as she sings to herself on the palace steps, there are at least two that consist of good actors flitting around the forest grounds.
That said: Into the Woods is also Rob Marshall’s best film, and one of the best Broadway-to-film translations since Marshall’s own Chicago brought them back into vogue in 2002. Marshall may not have a particular knack for crafting big musical moments, but he at least steps back from the abyss of Nine and even the lauded Chicago, where he combined staginess and ADD cutting with little regard for the strengths of either medium. Into the Woods has longer takes; the better to emote with, my dear. Meryl Streep, as the Witch, and Emily Blunt, as the Baker’s Wife, both benefit from this approach, as the mash-up of the first act gives way to regret, remorse, and disappointment in the (somewhat truncated for the movie) second.
Sometimes all the tasteful restraint errs on the side of safety: Depp is fun as the Big Bad Wolf, but the movie makes him more Big Bad Wolfman, and mutes the sexuality of his song for Red Riding Rood. The briefness and lack of balls-out weirdness will probably come as a relief to Sondheim purists who couldn’t stand hearing a rock-and-roll range applied to Sweeney Todd. But considering that he’s (a.) an inventive actor and (b.) one of the more popular in the world, the movie uses him gingerly, as if internet comments and theater geeks deserve the last word on Depp.
This does, however, mean that the movie doesn’t go after easy camp at every opportunity—even the funniest number, the Prince Charming duet “Agony,” featuring Chris Pine yanking open his shirt while standing over a waterfall, doesn’t turn into a grotesque parody. This may not seem like a miracle given the sophisticated source material, but Prince Charming as a preening boob is probably one of the five or six most-employed parodic tropes of the past three decades. Marshall doesn’t take the cheap-laugh bait, trusting Pine to get laughs on the character’s terms. To their credit, Disney fits a lot of dark humor and sadness into their PG musical, all without turning Sondheim into a sung-through Once Upon a Time. It’s all together more thoughtful and idiosyncratic than it needs to be—and may not be acknowledged as such if it becomes a big hit. In at least that one sense, then, it’s not unlike a Tim Burton film.