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Are “Big Eyes” and “The Gambler” Good Bets?

December 28, 2014

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Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Big Fish. And now Big Eyes. Clearly, size matters to Tim Burton. Yet his latest, based on the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her credit-grabbing husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), is one of his smallest-scaled films in years. And it’s one of his best, a hell of a lot better than bloated, mega-budget bores like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.

It may help that he’s separated himself, at least temporarily—no, not from real-life wife Helena Bonham Carter (theirs seemed like a match made in twisted-movie heaven), but from frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, who seems to have gone off the rails creatively with the likes of The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and the excruciating-looking January dumping-ground release Mortdecai. (I haven’t seen Into the Woods yet, but it seems telling that he’s barely visible in the trailers.)

The filmmaker has found a simpatico spirit in Waltz, whose grinningly theatrical acting style is almost as well-suited to Burton as it has been to Quentin Tarantino, who’s directed him to two Oscars. (I’d love to see what David Lynch would do with Waltz.) As for Adams, to whom I’ve referred as America’s Most Overrated Actress, at least her Southern drawl is more consistent than her peekaboo British accent was in American Hustle. I know, it was supposed to be fake, but it’s hard to believe anybody would’ve bought that phony voice.

Big Eyes is ultimately about a footnote in art history, but screenwriters and unlikely biopic specialists Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Burton’s own Ed Wood) manage to turn it into a satisfyingly upbeat story with a beginning, middle and an end, something that’s been lacking in too many of Burton’s movies, like his take on Planet of the Apes; he’s often seem more interested in art direction than in narrative drive.

Big Eyes is also a hell of a lot better than The Gambler, with Burton’s old Apes star Mark Wahlberg. What a pretentious, miscast mess this movie is. It’s a needless remake of a pleasingly downbeat 1974 drama that starred James Caan, looking eerily like his son Scott, who broke out in Wahlberg’s semi-autobiographical HBO sitcom Entourage. Only two years after The Godfather, Caan managed to embody a character who’s both a collegiate English professor and a degenerate gambler. Wahlberg, who’s a terrific actor (he deservedly was the only cast member singled out for an Oscar nomination in The Departed and should’ve gotten nods for Boogie Nights and The Fighter as well), simply can’t make the unrealistically flowery language of the screenplay by William Monahan—who also wrote The Departed—sound like actual human speech. The original screenplay, a semi-autobiographical work by James Toback, tried much less hard and rang much more true.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes!) doesn’t help matters with his arty visuals (out-of-focus strippers, slow-motion basketball players, sped-up casino action…yawn). And the supporting cast is mostly wasted: George Kennedy (who knew he was still alive?) and Andre Braugher are given but one scene each—there must be more left on the cutting-room floor, no?—and The Wire veterans Michael Kenneth Williams and Domenick Lombardozzi (also an Entourage alum) are stuck with one-dimensional street-tough parts… although they, too, are forced to recite stilted lines like “It’s been so since the Greeks.” John Goodman, as always, makes everything better, but he’s only got four scenes as an intimidatingly bald loan whale…er, shark… and in two of them, he’s topless. And Jessica Lange, as Wahlberg’s wealthy mother, seems like she’s still in Ryan Murphy melodrama mode after too many seasons of American Horror Story.

Worst of all, Brie Larson must grapple with the ridiculous role of Wahlberg’s prodigious student, who’s also inexplicably a waitress at an underground gambling den in the film’s opening scene (that’s never explained and only glancingly brought up again—again, there must’ve been more to this subplot). Oh, and of course, she becomes his love interest, because apparently no one in Hollywood can have an age-appropriate girlfriend. And just when you think it can’t get worse, there’s a yes-you-can-have-it-all happy ending that’s as tonally jarring as it is insulting to the memory of the morally ambivalent ’70s original. The moral of this story, believe it or not, is: You’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were remaking Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler?

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