Considering Tim Burton, Hollywood’s Most Disappointing Auteur


There’s a new Tim Burton trailer in the world, and that means it’s time for one of the film fan’s favorite biyearly rituals: choosing up sides between “Ugh, Tim Burton” and “Maybe it’ll be a return to form!” His new film, Big Eyes, is based on the true story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who claimed credit for her work. It comes at a moment when Burton needs some sort of artistic redemption (even more than usual), but Big Eyes looks less like a filmmaker trying something new than trying a different variation on something old. Is there a busier yet more consistently disappointing auteur at work in contemporary Hollywood?

To bring you up to speed on Burton, in case you’re one of the Hot Topic-averse folks who tuned him out years ago: the indifferent response to his last live-action feature, Dark Shadows, indicated the movie-going public might finally be tired of his proto-goth, Depp-infused schtick. Said schtick was found in the form of Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sleepy Hollow; this skeptic would argue that his last genuinely great movie came two full decades ago, in the form of the gleefully goofy biopic Ed Wood. Whenever I try to make that argument, some joker tries to bring up Big Fish (and sorry, not buying — it’s an empty husk of a movie, a would-be Forrest Gump whose admittedly moving ending swindled people into forgetting the undercooked 100 minutes that precede it).

But whichever way you swing on the question, Big Eyes has got you covered; he’s replicating the treacly period nostalgia of Big Fish, and coupling it with an off-kilter biopic script by the kings of that sub-genre, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who (wouldn’t ya know it) penned Ed Wood. And thus Big Eyes is a very self-conscious attempt to “return to form,” by reanimating the elements of two previous (critical) successes. And that’s the problem with the Big Eyes trailer: from the throwback glow to the rags-to-riches storyline to the clichéd courtroom dialogue (was “You don’t even know what the truth is!” a Few Good Men outtake?), it looks like a meal of leftovers.

Over the course of his career, it’s become clear that Burton has exactly three speeds: his busy, self-consciously “quirky” trademark style (seen in the Depp collaborations and Mars Attacks!); the indistinct “blockbuster” mold (Batman, Planet of the Apes); and the calmer, “humanistic” approach, which he trots out for his period dramas (Ed Wood, Big Fish). But the problem, as usual, is that Tim Burton is a designer and not a storyteller. He’s got an aesthetic, to be sure, but it’s one that he imposes on his projects, rather than the other way around. So just as the zany make-up and crazy hair and Gothic settings and Edward Gorey tone indicates that we’re in the world of his wacky nightmare fantasies, the period cars and golden glow and verge-of-tears theatrics are there to indicate, as unsubtly as possible, that we’re back to “serious” Burton.

In all fairness, Big Eyes could be worth a damn — it’s got Adams doing an anguished artist with a Southern purr (and with the notoriously effective awards campaigners at The Weinstein Company distributing, she seems a pretty safe bet to get at least nominated for a golden boy), Waltz working his surface-charming, secretly vile groove, and an utterly enviable supporting cast (Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Kristyn Ritter, Terence Stamp). But writers Alexander and Karaszewski have had a bit of a rough go in recent years as well (their last good film was 1999’s Man on the Moon), and if Tim Burton has proved one thing in recent years, it’s that if he’s got a bad script, he’s sunk. Yet thanks to the unaccountably robust box office of Alice, Charlie, and even Dark Shadows, he remains one of the few genuinely bankable filmmakers in Hollywood. Some might use that financial security to stretch their legs artistically, rather than continuing to just spin their wheels.