Alternative title: A Tale of Two Biopics
(haha I’m so clever. give me a job.)
Christmas happened, and I went to the movies with friends and family, and Big Eyes and The Imitation Game are what we saw. So, here we are.
Big Eyes (2014) [Margaret Keane biopic]
Directed by Tim Burton
Watched on Dec 25
While it’s far better than Dark Shadows (what isn’t?), Big Eyes is largely an exercise in squandered potential. There is a real sincerity to this film, but that alone does not save it from a certain overarching blandness. Too bad.
Amy Adams does a fine job in the film. She is a transformative actress, and I’ve come to expect nothing but quality work from her. As Margaret, she is warm, fragile, innocent, genuine, and thoroughly likable. Burton’s film most certainly sympathizes with Margaret, and Amy makes her more than easy to cheer for. She is the hero of the film, and the staunch feminist in me could not help but smile as she triumphed over her manipulative husband at its end. That said, I do not think that the film’s script or narrative structure fully live up to Margaret’s potential as a character.
As Walter Keane, Christoph Waltz does a great deal to make Big Eyes far more watchable than it might have been. I’m sure that some will say that he over does it just a tad, but the way I see it, he injects some much needed life and energy into an otherwise often lackluster film.
Now for some more complaints. Looking at the young actress (Madeleine Arthur) who plays the teenage version of Margaret’s daughter, it becomes immediately evident that she was cast more for her big blue eyes than she was for any acting ability. I had a hard time enjoying nearly all of the scenes in which she appears or has lines. Her acting in the film comes across as amateur; and there is really no excuse for that sort of casting mistake (or weak writing) in a film as large as this one.
Also, while I love Lana Del Rey more than most (really, I fucking love Lana Del Rey), the decision to play her song “Big Eyes” in the middle of the film irks me to no end. The result is a rather disruptive tonal hiccup.
A great deal of my frustration with Big Eyes stems from the fact that its premise (the story of Margaret Keane and her art) really is a fascinating one. This could have been a very interesting film about art, popularity, authorship, and gender dynamics, but Burton’s treatment of this story is just too safe and vanilla to make much of an impact in the end. Big Eyes is pretty entertaining, and it has a sense of humor about it that really is enjoyable at times, but it’s all more or less forgettable in the end. Like Walter Keane’s career as an “artist”, Big Eyes suffers from an unfortunate lack of substance.
Adams and Waltz are two of my favorite working actors, so to be so unimpressed by a film that they both star in really does pain me.
The Imitation Game (2014) [Alan Turing biopic]
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Watched on Dec 26
While The Imitation Game is more successful than Big Eyes, it still falls victim to a number of biopic pitfalls that render it messier and less effective than it might have been.
The best part of this film is certainly Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. Near the beginning of the film, I began to worry that he was simply reprising Sherlock Holmes under another name, but such fears were dispelled quite quickly. Cumberbatch does a near-perfect job with the material is is given. As Turing, he is vulnerable and arrogant, sad and driven all at once. His slight stutter well executed, and he does a wonderful job of capturing audience sympathies. He brings the tragedy of Alan Turing to life in a powerful (I cried) and largely believable way. I can’t wait to see him star in a film with a better script and under the direction of someone more skilled than Tyldum.
Keira Knightley also gives a solid performance as the lone-female mathematician Joan Clarke. Together, she and Cumberbatch carry most of the film’s best scenes.
Desplat’s score is (predictably) quite beautiful, though the film’s use of it does come across as a tad heavy-handed at times.
Most of the problems with The Imitation Game lie in its script (too obvious, too clumsy) and its narrative structure (too jumbled, too loose).
A more subtle and more artful script would have helped advance this film from pretty good almost sort of great. Having to listen to three different characters utter the same emotionally-charged line verbatim really makes a viewer cringe. It’s pedestrian. By the third time the line is uttered (“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”), it comes across as forced rather than heartfelt and it effectively kills what would otherwise be a very touching moment in the film.
The Imitation Game has a frame narrative (the first scene takes place years after the bulk of the film but before its final scenes) as well as a number of flashbacks (to Turing’s childhood). This narrative structure needlessly complicates things and doesn’t really work. While I can forgive the flashbacks (though I found them painfully awkward and did not enjoy them), the unhelpful frame narrative should have been reworked or cut.
More focus would have also helped this film a great deal. The Imitation Game starts out as a film about a breaking Nazi codes; as it continues, it also tries to be a story about the struggles of being a woman in a man’s word, an indictment of the poor treatment of homosexuals under British law, and a lament for those heroes who have not been properly recognized as such. While each of the stories the film tries to tell is important and worth telling, the film is also too divided among them to do any single one of them full justice.
The Imitation Game is emotionally stirring, boasts strong performances from its two leads, and is certainly a crowd-pleaser, and I am sure that there are many who will watch it without feeling the need to bitch about its clumsy script or wasted potential as I have here. That said, I cannot help but be bothered by a number of its missteps.
Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. I will (probably) eventually post my top 10 of the year, but I am going to wait until I have seen Selma and Inherent Vice (both of which will not be released in Tulsa until Jan 9) to do so.
Also, if you were really excited for either of these films before, don’t let my lukewarm reviews of them scare you off. I’ve come to find that biopics almost always leave me somewhat frustrated and wanting; so maybe I’m part of the problem here. . . idk.