“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,” begins Matt Brennan at Slant. “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 director of 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.”
Margaret’s “domineering and abusive husband Walter claimed her work as his own and Margaret finally had to battle through the courts to be recognized as their creator,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “The movie begins with a deadpan quote from Andy Warhol endorsing the Keane brand; Burton’s movie itself isn’t sure whether to go along with this affectless postmodernism, or to come out in favor of the paintings actually being good in themselves, a different question to whether Margaret should be properly credited for her own work. But it does raise important questions about why women artists are discouraged and marginalized.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy: “As much as it clearly displays Burton’s directorial signature, the film is also very recognizably the work of the screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote not only Ed Wood but the equally oddball biographical scripts for The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, about comedian Andy Kaufman. This is a story about authorship and ownership of same within the context of an extremely imbalanced marriage, as well as of a warped struggle for recognition of one’s work, even if naysayers might ask, as one does, ‘Who would want credit for it?'”
“Despite Amy Adams’s affecting performance as an artist and ’50s/’60s housewife complicit in her own captivity,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang, “this relatively straightforward dramatic outing for Tim Burton is too broadly conceived to penetrate the mystery at the heart of the Keanes’ unhappy marriage—the depiction of which is dominated by an outlandish, ogre-like turn from Christoph Waltz that increasingly seems to hold the movie hostage.”
Big Eyes is the “most human film from Burton since Ed Wood,” finds Inkoo Kang at TheWrap, but for Ryan Lattanzio at Thompson on Hollywood, it’s “depressingly bad and soulless.” More from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema, 3/5), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, C) and Kristopher Tapley (HitFix). And here’s a tip from David D’Arcy: “For the broader Keane chronicle that’s now the subject of feature stories everywhere, the best single source is Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson.”
“Half Steven Spielberg and half David Lynch,” suggests Noel Murray in a career overview for the Dissolve, “Burton has often made dynamic, crowd-pleasing movies about people a lot like himself: misfits adrift in pleasantville. Over and over, Burton has borrowed from spooky old movies and kitschy TV shows to tell stories where losers become winners by beating away bullies in noisy final battles that take place in tall, shadowy towers. His early films in particular are obsessed with darkness, though by the end, nearly all of them round off any sharp edges, leaving audiences more reassured than challenged. Yet whatever Burton’s work has lacked in real danger, it’s more than made up in visual splendor.”
Zach Clark, director of White Reindeer, at the Talkhouse Film: “I’ll make a confession—if it wasn’t for Tim Burton, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker…. Ed Wood was a revelation for me. Two brand-new concepts were simultaneously introduced to my pre-adolescent brain:
- You don’t need millions of dollars and famous actors to make a movie. You can make movies any way you want to, with your friends, with strange people you meet, with weirdos who just have that special something. You can steal the equipment. You can shoot on cardboard sets. It doesn’t matter, just make it.
- Just because something isn’t traditionally ‘good’ doesn’t mean it is without merit. In fact, a movie’s imperfections, misguided decisions and outright failures can make it more interesting than so-called ‘professional’ productions. (As John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented would put it to me six years later, ‘Technique is nothing more than failed style.’)
And these ideas basically changed my life.”
At Slate, Dee Lockett has the latest on Beetlejuice 2: “Burton, speaking to MTV, has confirmed that he wants to return to direct, that he’s continuing to work on a script with Seth Grahame-Smith (Dark Shadows), and that there are parts for both Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder.”
Updates, 12/27: “A horror movie tucked inside a domestic drama wrapped up in a biopic,” suggests A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “In Big Eyes, the sincerity of the artist trumps the judgment of the critics, and her vision triumphs over fraudulent promotion. It makes a passionate case for her. Whether it vindicates her art is another question entirely.”
“As much as this movie might have seemed personal to Burton, it lets the fraud upstage the artist,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “Margaret’s relationship to these surrealist images is vague. They seem to predict the suffering she experiences while married to Walter. But her explanation of what they’re all about feels dramatically and psychologically inadequate. You get why Walter’s made-up backstory took off: It’s characteristically manipulative. What emotional connection there is between Margaret and the paintings comes mostly from Adams.”
Writing for Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton suggests that “the film’s unshakable basis in reality makes [Burton’s] weaknesses more glaring. There’s the obnoxious and unnecessary voice-over… There’s the stilted dialogue, which in Burton’s more surreal and otherworldly films is more easily overlooked… There’s the rickety pacing of scenes that makes the first two thirds of the film feel like an exhausting marathon of exposition. Lastly, and this is less of a Burton trope, there’s the frustratingly limited use of two potentially hilarious supporting actors: Jason Schwartzman as a modern art dealer who refuses to show Keane’s kitsch, and Terence Stamp as New York Times art critic John Canaday.”
More from Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, 4/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 2/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph), Sherilyn Connelly (SF Weekly), Richard Corliss (Time), A.A. Dowd (AV Club, B-), Robert Horton (Herald), David Jenkins (Little White Lies), Hemanth Kissoon, Drew Lazor (Philadelphia City Paper, B-), Matt Lynch (In Review Online), Elise Nakhnikian (L), Amy Nicholson (Voice), Sheila O’Malley (RogerEbert.com, 2.5/4), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, D+), Keith Phipps (Dissolve, 3.5), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 3/5) and Kelly Vance (East Bay Express).
Eliana Dockterman: “Time looked at articles from the 1960s and 1970s—including a profile in Life Magazine and critiques of the big eye paintings in the New York Times—and modern-day interviews with Margaret Keane to find out how closely the new Tim Burton film Big Eyes follows Keane’s rise in the art world and eventual exposure as a fraud.”
Nigel M. Smith talks with Adams for Indiewire.
Updates, 12/30: Writing for the New Inquiry, Rob Horning suggests that “we are dealing with a film about a visionary who turned his wife’s hackneyed outsider art into one of the most popular emblems of an era and who has since been neglected and forgotten, despite inventing art-market meta-strategies that have since become ubiquitous. The movie seems to persecute Walter because it is the only way it could get us to pay enough attention to him to redeem him.”
“After the bloated uncertainties of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows (his last two live-action features), it’s encouraging to find Burton returning to a more intimate canvas,” writes the Observer‘s Mark Kermode. “Despite Waltz’s huffing and puffing, Big Eyes finds the film-maker in his most grown-up mood since the overlooked Big Fish (2003), Burton’s melancholic love of the outsider once again taking center stage.”
For Slant, Steve Macfarlane talks with screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander.
Update, 1/10: Ryan Gilbey talks with Amy Adams for the Guardian.