Tim Burton has needed to break away from himself for some time now - or so many a think piece or whining fan would have you believe. The director has long been an easy example of a certain type of auteurism: his films are recognizably his even when they're adapted from someone else's work. Burton has a trademark look, a trademark sound, a recycling troupe of actors, and repeatedly embraced themes. Though his work has long inspired a type of cult fandom, it seems that lately we may have become exhausted by the kooky mayhem he brings to the screen. The last decade or so has found Burton suffering from a type of Hot Topic overexposure; his films have become, too-often, studio projects with over-inflated budgets and automatic t-shirt tie-ins. Along with that, many would tell you, they seem to have become even more about artifice, and you shouldn't have to look very far to find a one-time Burton fan quietly complaining about the director's descent into self-parody.
After this super-saturation, then, we've been in need of a palate cleanser - and Burton has been too. Big Eyes feels like the director slamming down hard on the reset button, if nothing else. It's his attempt at a relatively straightforward biopic. All the makeup, expressionist mise en scene, and surrealism has been scrubbed away in favor of period costuming, straightforward lighting, and sincere performances. The Burtonesque can be found in only two places in Big Eyes: its loving approach to kitsch and Christoph Waltz's over-the-top mugging as the dumbly villainous Walter Keane. Maybe this is the way things need to be. Maybe this is the break that proves he can do something else. Maybe whatever comes next will allow us to appreciate the Burtonesque again. We can hope for all of these things, because at the end of the day there's one only one major complaint to be made against Big Eyes: it's flat. It's too typical. It plays out like every other biopic you've ever seen. And as such? It just doesn't feel like a product of its director.
Big Eyes throws the viewer into a double-bind, and this is Burton's Paradox. What we want and expect from him is precisely what we claim we've grown weary of, yet we know when we see Big Eyes that it could be better. Here we meet Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) at the moment of flight from her first husband. We're not provided with the exact nuances of their situation, but know her escape is for the better. Margaret packs her life in a suitcase, loads her daughter into the car, and takes off for San Francisco. There, she restarts as a single-parent. She finds a job, and takes to trying to sell her paintings -colorful portraits of wide-eyed spectral children - at street fairs. She's quiet, awkward in conversation, and when smooth-talking Walter steps over from his own booth to teach her a thing or two about salesmanship, she quickly finds herself falling under his spell. The two marry, and it's no secret now that Walter begins selling his work and hers under his own name. "Lady art doesn't sell," he tells Margaret at some point, and as their empire grows into a monopoly of prints, posters, and merch, poor repressed Margaret goes along with it: toiling in secret as her husband basks in the spotlight.
There's tremendous possibility in a story like Margaret Keane's, and to it's credit, the film does momentarily position itself to drop in the occasional idea on kitsch vs. fine art, modes of production, and the odd way viewers perceive male vs. female artists. Given a more nuanced script and a focus just on the periphery - a little more of the critics and gallery owners - we could have had more of this (and a much smarter film), but Big Eyes is locked firmly in that little studio with Margaret. Though this is very much Margaret's story, the downside of this approach is that Margaret herself is a far less interesting on-screen presence. She's presented as extremely passive, which we conclude she must have been to allow this situation to happen. In her passivity, though, it's frequently difficult to get a read on her inner life. This isn't a character we perceive as existing locked into some difficult internal struggle, but instead is one who seems forever naive in a way that serves to frustrate and trivialize some of the much larger thematic issues raised by her story. It's unclear whether this is a fault of the script, a reflection of the character, or on Adams, but it's hard not to leave with more questions than you came in with. Put simply: though this is Margaret's story, I was never clear on why the film tends to place itself in her perspective. The film, too, doesn't seem to think this is the right angle as we're technically guided through via the voiceover of a reporter rehashing the material from some later, mysterious vantage.
I shouldn't have to say anything further about why that particular narrative method doesn't work, so I'll skip ahead. Beyond the frustrating gaps in Margaret Keane's narrative (how did no one else know they were her paintings? Why didn't anyone come forward in the court case?), Big Eyes feels like pure missed opportunity. It's the rare biopic focused wholly in the visual arts, and as such, it comes equipped with an aesthetic that could have been easily matched or appropriated by its mise-en-scene. Though we get a few turpentine halluncinations of Margaret seeing big eyed people in real life, the film tends to dodge the expressionist externality that Tim Burton usually specializes in. Instead, we're given scene after scene of flat, sunny, 1960's landscape in a way that feels too often like an afterthought instead of an additive. The result is a paint-by-numbers approach to the biopic: minimal style, minimal substance, just a fall-back reliance on your engagement with the story.